Interlocking circles of revenge is the background of this brutal 2010 special agent vs. serial killer film. By the end of the movie, you are rooting for everyone to lose. (And yet, it’s still a pretty good movie.)
Directed by Jee-Woon Kim.
I Saw the Devil very well could have extended its title to read “… And He Looked Right Back at me in the Mirror.” There is a time-honored trope in revenge films where the protagonist has to become a bit of a monster themselves in order to exact bloody recompense on their adversary. Think Death Wish or Last House on the Left. This film is squarely in that family of bloody revenge fantasy.
It’ the I’m going to make that person suffer for the horrible things they did. The eye for an eye and so fort, and so on. Unlike those other two low budget seventies grindhouse cult films, I Saw the Devil is also a beautifully shot production. The Director, Kim, is also responsible for the fantastic psychological horror/family drama A Tale of Two Sisters, one of the all=time great Korean horror pictures.
I Saw the Devil opens with the abduction, killing, and dismemberment of Joo-Yeon, the daughter of the local police chief, and the betrothed to the dashing and dangerous special agent Soo-Hyeon Kim (Byung-Hun Lee). And, she’s pregnant. The whole scene is about as traumatic a watch as there is in these kinds of movies, and it is not for the faint of heart. The charismatic Min-Sik Choi plays the serial killer Jang-Kyung, with a mix of bravado and sinister silence. His reason for killing is never fully vetted, but you get the sense that he does this for pleasure, and for sexual frustration.
When Joo-Yeon’s ear is discovered by a child near a river, a manhunt is on, and they find her decapitated head in a culvert. Was Jang-Kyung sloppy, or wanting to make a show? Hard to say. The distraught Soo-Hyeon vows bloody revenge, and methodically starts eliminating the suspects until he discovers Jang-Kyung attempting to rape another victim, and Soo-Hyeon manages to beat Jang-Kyung senseless, crushing his hand and putting a tracker on him.
What Soo-Hyeon has decided to do is to catch and release, and to try and instigate fear into the killer. It’s a very dirty Harry thing to do, but this psychopath doesn’t rattle easily, and he is fairly adept at overcoming some fairly brutal tactics from Soo-Hyeon, who thanks to his tracker, always manages to catch up to his serial killer prey, and they go through some protracted battles several times, where routinely Soo-Hyeon gets to show off his fighting skills, and Jang-Kyung ends up with a new limb damaged each time.
But, eventually Soo-Hyeon’s master plan falls apart, and Jang-Kyung proves to be both physically and emotionally resilient, and not without allies, and so we get these interlocking loops of violent revenge where both men perpetrate horrific violence against the other and the innocent (and not-so-innocent) people in their lives,.
It is this departure from ethics and morals that prevent me from really enjoying this movie. It does bring you in and root for the wort possible things to happen to Jang-Kyung, and Min-Sik Choi plays him with a confident relish, a real prime-time baddie. But you struggle to root for the protagonist, as Soo-Hyeon allows his hubris to get the better of him, and if he were more straightforward with his revenge plot, a lot of pain and collateral suffering could have been avoided.
Casual police brutality is easily forgiven. There isn’t even a “You’ve gone rogue! Give me your piece and your badge!” moment. There are some man-sized plot holes in this story, but it is sharply conceived, and there’s never a dull moment. The acting is superb, throughout, though the women in refrigerators meme is literally in full-effect here. Granted it is 2010, not 2018, but the meme is hard to miss.
I appreciated this movie, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it. I’m just not very patient with revenge films. Not to say there aren’t some great ones. Last year’s Revenge was a liberating and exhilarating exercise. This one ALMOST gets there, but the frustrating bits are a bit too much for me to overcome. Your mileage may vary, however, and since the movie has so many powerful elements, it may very well be your cup of tea. If you can’t take rape, torture, and dismemberment though? This movie will likely be a Bridge Too Far. (Not a Gateway film)