악마를 보았다 | I Saw the Devil (2010)
There is a very thin line that separates exploration from exploitation in cinema. And walking on that thin ice throughout its runtime is this ultra-violent revenge flick from South Korea which, with its graphic depiction of torture might give an appearance of something that borders on tasteless gore but thanks to its greater emphasis on plot & characters, this thriller eventually succeeds as an emotionally devastating story of loss & revenge that is extremely well executed on the film canvas. Brutally intense, downright shocking, relentlessly violent & absolutely unforgiving, I Saw the Devil finds renowned filmmaker Kim Jee-woon revelling at the very top of his game and is his third consecutive masterpiece after A Bittersweet Life & The Good, the Bad, the Weird.
I Saw the Devil opens with the introduction of a merciless serial killer, Kyung-chul, preying on his latest victim named Joo-yun whose car is stranded on roadside due to a flat tire & who happens to be the daughter of the Squad Chief Jang & fiancé of Soo-hyun; a secret service agent of National Intelligence Service. After the police search uncovers her decapitated body, Soo-hyun becomes enraged & determined to track the killer down and seek vengeance. With a little help from Joo-yun’s father, Soo-hyun is able to find Kyung-chul, beats the hell out of him, plants a tracking device in his body & then reappears to torture Kyung-chul whenever he is about to kill someone. And thus begins the diminishing of the fine line between victim & aggressor among both the characters and the observation of this very element is this film’s core ingredient.
If one takes a look at director Kim Jee-woon’s filmography and the reception his films have received both critically & commercially, it’s not difficult to assess that Jee-woon is one of world cinema’s most versatile filmmakers working in the industry today and, in my opinion, I Saw the Devil is possibly the finest work of his acclaimed career. Where Jee-woon impresses the most here is in trying to push the film beyond the confines of its genre while keeping its drama, action & violence smoothly balanced & undisturbed. The screenplay is brilliantly written as well with every event carefully plotted & finely detailed. Cinematography adds a considerable amount of richness to the story & captures each frame meticulously. Editing paces the 144 minutes narrative remarkably well and every scene is somehow relevant to the plot. And last but not the least, music accompanies the drama & drives the viewers’ emotions just as brilliantly as it is composed.
Coming to the performances, I Saw the Devil features two of Asian cinema’s most revered actors in Choi Min-sik & Lee Byung-hun, and both deliver equally memorable performances here. Choi Min-sik stars as Kyung-chul, a remorseless serial killer who gets a slight taste of his own medicine when he is hunted & tortured repeatedly by one of his victims’ fiancé. And without losing any of his acting prowess, Min-sik couldn’t have asked for a better return to cinema after his self-imposed exile years ago. Lee Byung-hun plays Soo-hyun, the fiancé of one of Kyung-chul’s victims who, in the process of seeking revenge, starts becoming the very person he hates most. And this vengeful character with so much of stuffed-up emotions is fabulously illustrated by Byung-hun. Throughout its runtime, the screen is either shared by one or both of these immensely talented actors plus the clash of their screen presence is as intense as the clash of their characters, and it is at its most ruthless in the final moments.
Although Cinema of South Korea has never been afraid to show the dark side of human nature and the filmmakers have been equally uncompromising as well, I Saw the Devil still ranks as one of the most extreme mainstream features out there as far as violence in cinema is concerned. It is definitely not for the faint-hearted & it is definitely not for the easily distressed. There are moments involving rape, mutilation, disemboweling & even cannibalism in it so do make up your mind before venturing into this dark alley because it sure won’t be a pleasant cinematic experience but it certainly will be one of the most unforgettable ones. On an overall scale, Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil may not be as classic a revenge-thriller as Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy but it sure is more aggressive & relentless than that one. Undoubtedly one of the greatest films of the past decade and inarguably one of the finest examples of its genre, I Saw the Devil continues to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in mainstream movies and is one revenge flick no cinema lover should miss out. One hundred percent recommended.