Review: I Saw The Devil

[In light of its Canadian commercial release, I give you our review of over the top South Korean serial killer cat & mouse thriller from the Row Three Archives]

“Nothing will go wrong,” is about the must amusing thing to ever hear in a Kim Ji Woon film. The director has made a number of films spanning a number of genres and they are about just about everything going terribly, terribly wrong. Even if the players fancy themselves in control of the situation. Here we have a methodical (Oldboy‘s Choi Min Sik) but unhinged killer of young women, who drives a small school bus and has a torture dungeon for scattering body parts across town. When he kills the fiancée of a state policeman (A Bitter Sweet Life‘s Lee Byung-Hun) he gets far more than he bargained for. Instead of spending his grief-time mourning the loss of his beloved, he uses that time to go full vigilante, initially soliciting help from the victims father (also a retired cop), but rapidly killing and torturing his way to cut through the red tape of typical police work. But, as is the mantra of the film, ‘we are just getting started’, the agent does not want to capture or kill his enemy, he wants to make him suffer in every way possible. Things do not go according to plan, and thus a back and forth of people doing terrible things to each other escalates to a point where the film moves well beyond serial killer movie clichés because nothing quite this charismatically sadistic has been done in the genre at this point. I Saw The Devil is a movie of oneupmanship usually reserved for comedies – here it is a oneupmanship of tragedies that ripple outward from the two crazy men at the center.

A quiet snowy night, a car driving slowly along the road, illumination of the rear-view mirror and the shape of the wiper makes the vehicle’s windshield look both angry and sad. Despite all the mayhem on screen the film is ultimately about the state of mind of both men. Angry and sad. Was Choi Min Sik’s psycho a naïve revolutionary gone horribly awry? Was Lee Byung-Hun’s too-career-driven state of existence the reason for her unfortunate moment of bad timing? Crazy is relative, but both are indeed crazy. To say that Kim Ji-Woon has control of the visual style of his latest film is an understatement. The film is kinetic, gory, and grimly amusing, and it could be the crazier cousin of David Fincher’s Seven (or more apropos, The Game) or a fourth entry in Park Chan-Wook’s vengeance trilogy. Yet the film is not quite up to snuff in terms of brains or spiritual content. The movie is a ‘ride,’ it might as well have a “versus” in the title, Choi Min-Sik vs. Lee Byung-Hun. The actors work wonderfully together, there is certainly chemistry as they hack each other to bits, if that is the right word. A return to the familiar for Choi Min Sik after taking a few years off acting for industry reasons; he lets it all hang out. His killer aggressive and bloody, yet retains a off-kilter sense of humour and smarter than he behaves. Lee Byung-Hun is his usual icy and precise self. He has to go to some pretty dark places, the film is ultimately a tragedy of his own self-making.

Anyone expecting to find deeper spiritual or moral probing along the lines of Park Chan-Wook’s trilogy is asking too much. It seems that Kim Ji-Woon has been on the path where his films get less deep and more in love with their own excesses with each entry. Sure he crosses genres with each film, but if you look at the intersection of family and fairy tale in A Tale of Two Sisters, something that was handled with a fair bit of nuance, and compare that to the greed verses united nation angle in The Good The Bad The Weird, hopefully you see where I am coming from. Kim’s films, I Saw The Devil included, remain fun and exciting affairs, but do not engage the brain or the soul much beyond the basic concept. Case in point: the film never really develops beyond Lee’s becoming the devil to defeat the devil and all the collateral damage done (family, innocent bystanders, you name it) in that single-minded quest. Is doing all this evil enough to be justified by a promise and love? It is a not a difficult question to answer after the film is over. The uncut version showed at the Toronto International Film Festival and it is about as bloody and gory (and oddly enough, glossy) a serial killer movie that I can recall. I’m sure someone will make a bloodier and gorier movie, that is the way these things work, but that does not change the fact that this is probably the current benchmark, Korean cinema or otherwise. Since the concept is rather ludicrous to begin with, it is easy to let go and see the crazy places the story is going to dig into.