Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil is an incredibly thoughtful film in both theme and presentation; it’s clear that every frame was chosen to provoke a reaction, to get you to think and feel a certain way. Gory, violent, almost comical at times, it sticks with you the way few movies can. While the theme of revenge and its fundamental futility has approached cliché in modern cinema, Jee-woon Kim manages to take it in a new, disturbing direction. It’s not a mere cautionary tale about the cost of vengeance, nor is it a ho-hum meditation on a man becoming the monster he hunts, but something different, something better: a story of how violence in any form can poison both the actor and the victim, no matter how justified.
The film’s attention to detail is immediately arresting: a cart heaped with the remains of one of serial killer Kyung-chul’s victims appears at first a mess of pink flesh until you see the brown nipple of a breast peek out, reminding you that this meat used to be a young woman. Our first glimpse of the secret agent protagonist shows the angelic perfection of his face just so, foreshadowing that he can only descend from here on out. The apparent throwaway scene of Kim Soo-hyeon interviewing Kyung-chul’s estranged parents and unwanted son becomes very important later in the film. From the blood to the effortless malice Kyung-chul exudes, everything is meaningful, everything makes sense.
Fans of Chan-wook Park’s Revenge Trilogy will appreciate Min-sik Choi’s performance as the utterly loathsome Kyung-chul: he’s not quite the badass he was from Oldboy, but he’s far more disturbing. We’re not shown why he kills young women or what makes him a serial killer, which is a deliberate choice: as the Devil to Kim Soo-hyeon’s angel, he doesn’t need reasons to be evil. He just is. His gradual disintegration through the film tells us that evil such as his cannot be conquered by anything other than decisive, righteous action. Kim Soo-hyeon’s petty malice can injure or even maim him, but not stop him.
Kim Soo-hyeon’s descent is more subtle: his prolonged revenge against Kyung-chul serves to knock him from his moral perch as a grieving man seeking to catch his fiancée’s killer, but doesn’t mark him, as such. By not killing or apprehending Kyung-chul at their first meeting, he takes responsibility for Kyung-chul’s subsequent acts of violence and murder. His game with the serial killer has a terrible cost, and not just to him.
The violence and gore, while affecting, isn’t gratuitous; in a film about a good person and a horrible person doing appalling things, the blood drives the story. There are a few hard parts to watch, and they do stay in memory after the credits roll. Despite the lengthy runtime, it’s a riveting, stylistic movie worth at least one sitting.
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