I Saw The Devil (악마를 보았다, Kim Jee-woon: 2010)

After the brutal murder of his fiance, state policeman Soo-hyun takes two weeks leave, but the time off isn’t to rest and get over his recent loss, it’s to hunt down the killer and exact revenge…

Refused a certification which would allow the film to play in front of multiplex audiences, I Saw The Devil was eventually released after cuts were made to its violent content. Kim Jee-woon’s darkest of thrillers stars two of Korea’s biggest stars and is thematically concerned with the act of revenge – a common and popular theme in recent years in Korean cinema. Kim Jee-woon specialises in spinning genres, and I Saw The Devil certainly has a mouthwatering premise. Attempting to sidestep the conventional revenge story as he sees it, Kim takes the form onto what  he considers may be its next logical step – analysing the actions of a man who not only takes his revenge but repeatedly does so, and the effects that this has on him. With its intentions laid bare I Saw The Devil is an intense experience. Full of on-screen violence and black humour, delivered with plenty of gore, it’s a film that pushes into ‘extreme’ territory. Add to this some interesting narrative twists and two stunning lead performances and you have a pretty irresistible film. Well, that’s at least how it appears on the surface.

There’s no doubt that I Saw The Devil is a thrill ride and is worth seeking out for its performances and delivery. However, it’s far from a perfect picture and given its complex theme it’s disappointing to find that it takes a relatively simple approach. It’s impossible to watch I Saw The Devil without some comparison to Park Chan-wooks ‘revenge trilogy’, against which its examination of the nature and effects of revenge feel comparatively lightweight. On the plus side there’s Choi Min-sik who commits completely to his role, the serial killer Kyung-chul is as frightening as anything you’ve ever seen on-screen before. Whether he amounts to a full character is debatable though – I Saw The Devil defines its characters by their actions and other than the violence and the introduction of some family members there’s little else that we know about him. If this is intentional (he of course represents the original ‘evil’ of the film) then its unfortunate that the same can be said for Lee Byung-huns Soo-hyun. While I Saw The Devil may set itself up as a journey to the dark side, there’s little that we know about our ‘good’ guy other than the fact that he must be good because he enforces the law, is in love and sings down the phone to his fiancé when he thinks no-one else can hear. Lee Byung-hun is excellent and his performance really can’t be faulted, but the character is damagingly underwritten.

Unfortunately there’s never really the sense of heading into darker depths in I Saw The Devil. You’re given the impression that the the film is supposed to represent the journey of a man sinking into lower and lower moral ground, the destruction of a soul, but more extreme actions don’t necessarily reflect this further moral desolation. Further to this, the casting may not help matters. While Lee Byung-hun is excellent at playing sharp, cold and calculated, we’ve already seen this before in A Bittersweet Life and The Good, The Bad, The Weird. We’re never in any doubt that he can exact his revenge, and what’s missing is the journey into the decline of his morality. Without this I Saw The Devil becomes the story of an angry man fighting a madman with the conclusion that both are mad. There’s not a lot else to it.

With I Saw The Devil Kim Jee-woon once again delivers a visually stunning ride with powerful performances and it’s certainly a must-see film for fans of his work. With a wicked line in black humour and a mean streak that is worth the price of entry alone (if you can stomach this type of dark work) it’s a daring film that presents that double-edged sword of selling to the audiences that equate modern Korean cinema to intense action / thriller brutality. For anyone looking for something a little deeper I Saw The Devil bears too much of a resemblance to his last work – The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Whereas that film was a fun ride with little required depth, I Saw The Devil is a darker one with equally little – but much needed – depth. It’s a shorter journey into madness than its two and a half-hour running time suggests – the unfulfilling nature of revenge leaving us feeling a little unfulfilled too.

Note: The version of I Saw The Devil reviewed here was screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2010 and appears to be an International cut with restored violence but trims for what director Kim Jee-woon considers unnecessary exposition..

악마를 보았다 (I Saw The Devil)
Directed by Kim Jee-woon
Produced by Kim Hyun-woo
Written by Park Hoon-jung
Starring Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Oh San-ha, Jeon Gook-hwan, Kim Yoon-set

I Saw The Devil Image © SIZ Entertainment Co. Ltd