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Fantastic Fest Review: ‘I Saw The Devil’

October 21, 2010
'I Saw The Devil' movie still

Lee Byung-hun as Dae-hoon

I shudder to think that I almost didn’t go see this film.  The press screening was early in the morning, it was a purported 2 and 1/2 hours long, it was subtitled, and I just didn’t know if I had the stamina that day, as I had four other films lined up.  It ends up that this is my favorite film of the entire festival, and I would go so far as to say it is a masterpiece on its own accord, not just within horror circles.

Director Kim Ji-Woon  has quickly differentiated himself from the pack of talented South Korean directors with exceptional genre films like A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, the Bad, the Weird.  Here he ups his game with an epic tale featuring one of the most chilling serial killers I have ever seen in a film.

On a snowy night, beautiful Joo-Yun (Oh San-Ha) gets a flat tire on her way home, and is stranded by the side of the road.  A man approaches her vehicle and adamantly insists on helping her.  After she declines his offer of help, he savagely attacks her by breaking out the car window.  She is dragged from her car, leaving a trail of blood across the top of the crisp white snow.

The film wastes no time bringing on the horrific visuals, as poor Joo-Yun is systematically tortured and brutally killed in a nondescript building lined with plastic tarps. Her tormentor is Kyeong-Cheol ( Choi Min-sik), who we come to find out has murdered a lot of people.

The murderer has made the grave error of messing with the wrong woman, though.  She was engaged to federal agent Dae-hoon (Lee Byung-hun), who vows he will hunt down whoever butchered her, and exact a terrible revenge.

Armed with some inside information courtesy of his Police Chief father-in-law, it doesn’t take long for Dae-hoon to track down the killer.  Curiously, he doesn’t kill the man, just physically brutalizes him and feeds him a tracking device while he is unconscious so that he may shadow his every move.

For the duration of the movie, the two play a sadistic game of cat and mouse.  The film explores the very interesting idea of how far Dae-hoon will go to avenge his fiance’s life.  Is it worth his sanity, his family,  and his humanity?   Is he willing to become a monster in order to hunt the monster?

Certainly, as the movie progresses, Dae-hoon starts losing most of the sympathy of the audience, as his brutality and sadism escalate.  Eventually, there is very little separating the killer and the avenger.

He is also quite selfish, actually allowing other potential victims to be offered up to the killer just so he might continue tracking him.  Although he intervenes and ultimately saves these victims from the same fate his fiance suffered, why let them go through the trauma and fright that they do in the first place?  If he killed the man the first time he caught him then no one would suffer at his hand again. Period. Case closed.

Instead, Dae-hoon has decided that making the killer’s life a literal hell is a far worse punishment than killing him outright. What becomes maddening to Dae-hoon is that the killer seems incapable of feeling pain, hence the increased brutality.  It’s a vicious cycle that the two men are caught in.

Choi Min-suk has made a name for himself with American audiences with the South Korean revenge flicks Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.  He was outstanding in both movies.  Here he is simply horrifying as a textbook sociopath. It would be quite easy for his character to become silly and unbelievable, like Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series.

However, Choi Min-suk convinces us that despite his broken, bruised and bloodied body, his character is so inherently evil that he powers on out of sheer willpower.  It is an astounding and chilling performance.  This killer will make you run to the relative comfort of Hannibal Lector’s arms for relief.

Lee Byung-hun does a nice job of going from dignified to depraved throughout the movie.  He’s a good contrast to Choi Min-suk in stature, looks, and brawn.

Despite being one of the more horrific movies that I’ve ever seen, I Saw The Devil is quite beautiful.  It reminded me a lot of Let the Right One In because the movie draws a lot on grays and blues to set the tone.  The opening scene when the killer is dragging Joo-yun from the car is gorgeous, and immediately demonstrates that this movie is going to be top caliber quality. The pacing is impeccable.  The two and a half hour running time flies by.

I Saw the Devil is one of the most unforgettable movies I have ever seen.  I can’t wait to see it again.  Fortunately, Magnet releasing has acquired the US rights to distribute the film, and it is expected to grace our screens in 2011.   If you have the stomach, I cannot recommend this movie enough.

I Saw The Devil is directed by Ji Woon-Kim. Starring Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-suk.  If you would like to get a feel for the visuals, I have embedded the trailer below, but it is in Korean. Rating 5/5


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