The last decade has seen a number of quite extraordinary revenge movies emerge from the shores of South Korea. Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy is perhaps the most well known, but Chul-soo Yang’s low-budget Bedevilled is equally notable, with a moving central performance from Seo Yeong-hee.
While the topic of revenge is often associated with cheap exploitation flicks like I Spit On Your Grave or Last House On The Left, both Bedevilled and Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy have more in common Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 drama, The Virgin Spring (which undoubtedly influenced many revenge films that came after, including Last House), and are marked out by their startling violence, sombre tone and stunning cinematography.
Directed by Kim Ji-woon, I Saw The Devil follows in the footsteps of those earlier South Korean revenge pictures and is quite possibly the most extreme and disturbing film of its type yet made, matched only by Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible for sheer gut-wrenching ferocity.
Choi Min-sik (who played Oh Dae-su in Chan-wook’s Oldboy) stars as greasy sociopath Kyung-chul, a school bus driver who spends his free time kidnapping and murdering women in graphic, horrible ways. One of Kyung-chul’s victims happens to be the fiancée of Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), an athletic secret service agent whose single-minded thirst for revenge proves to be more than a match for the killer’s depravity.
Revenge movies generally fall into two camps. In the first, we have such films like Death Wish and its sequels, in which the central character is an avenging angel triumphantly vanquishing his enemies. In the second, we have films such as Last House On The Left or The Hills Have Eyes, in which the protagonists’ lust for revenge sees them become almost as barbaric as those who have wronged them.
I Saw The Devil is an unusual mixture of these two genre strands. Soo-hyun, in his search to find his fiancée’s killer, begins beating up and torturing the lowlifes of Seoul, gradually working his way down a list of suspects until he catches up with Kyung-chul.
It’s here that I Saw The Devil‘s events take an unusual and disturbing turn. Rather than simply killing the despicable killer, as Death Wish‘s Paul Kersey would have done, Soo-hyun instead beats Kyung-chul to a pulp and then lets him go. In what soon develops into a perverse game of hide-and-seek, Soo-hyun follows the killer everywhere he goes, swooping in to inflict further injuries on him as soon as he attempts to harm a potential victim.
Intoxicated by the repeated act of carrying out his revenge, Soo-hyun becomes addicted to the tracking and tormenting of Kyung-chul, and appears oblivious to the collateral damage his pursuit causes.
I Saw The Devil is, therefore, as much an exploration of our morbid fascination with the revenge movie genre as it is a revenge movie in its own right. Any frisson of guilty pleasure evoked by Soo-hyun’s initial hunt for the killer is soon replaced by the bludgeoning repetition of the film’s violence, which refuses to allow the viewer to rest.
Its exploration of the corrupting nature of violence is a familiar theme from numerous other revenge movies, and like Last House On The Left, appears to question why people watch such films in the first place.
It’s an undeniably horrible, nihilistic film, and would probably be entirely unwatchable if it were not for Lee Mo-gae’s sumptuous cinematography. ‘Restraint’ may seem like an odd word to use to describe a film as excessive as I Saw The Devil, but Kim Jee-woon uses a surprising amount of discretion in much of the film’s more violent moments, and there are isolated instances – an aerial shot of falling snow, or a car interior at night – of stark, surreal beauty.
As well made as it is, I Saw The Devil lacks the sly brilliance of Oldboy, however. Choi Min-sik’s seething performance as the repellent serial killer is typically brilliant (and bears a passing resemblance to Robert De Niro’s turn as Max Cady in Martin Scorcese’s 1991 Cape Fear remake), but his nemesis Soo-hyun is a thin and underwritten character, and even an athletic, sad-eyed performance from Lee Byung-hun fails to give him much more depth.
The constantly shifting tone of I Saw The Devil will be decidedly unsettling for some, too, with the film bombarding the viewer with hideous imagery in one scene and neatly choreographed martial arts sequences the next. There are moments, too, where the film feels gratuitous and misogynistic.
Most certainly not a film for everyone’s tastes, I Saw The Devil is like a distillation of fifty years’ worth of revenge movies, an occasionally absurd, frequently unpleasant shriek of cinema. Those brave enough to watch I Am The Devil are unlikely to forget the experience in a hurry. Like Gaspar Noé’s similarly disturbing Irreversible, it’s among a handful of movies I’d prefer never to see again.
Once you’ve cringed through the main feature, there’s a ‘making of’ documentary, which largely consists of behind-the-scenes footage, a trailer and TV spot, as well as some brief yet illuminating interviews with the film’s director and crew.
I Saw The Devil is out today on DVD and Blu-ray and is available from the Den Of Geek Store.