REVIEW: 악마를 보았다 [I Saw the Devil] [2010]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 141 minutes | Release Date: August 12th, 2010 (South Korea)
Studio: Showbox/Mediaplex / Magnet Releasing
Director(s): Kim Jee-woon
Writer(s): Hoon-jung Park

“You already lost”

No one seems to know how to do a revenge flick like the South Koreans. You could infer this is caused by the strife they’ve been enduring for so long with their neighbors to the north or maybe they just possess some of the most violent and volatile minds in the world. With 악마를 보았다 [I Saw the Devil], writer Hoon-jung Park and director Jee-woon Kim have crafted a two and a half hour long epic of evil versus evil. Because even though Special Agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) is searching for the brutal murderer of his fiancé Joo-Yeon (San-ha Oh), his rampage could be construed as much worse than that of the killer. The fact he finds Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) about thirty-minutes in and decides to maim him to unconsciousness only to let him roam free to do it again and again makes it hard to decide whether there is a hero involved here or not.

It’s violence begetting violence as monsters create monsters in a concert of pain, suffering, and fear. Easily comparable to the civil war that has gone on for decades in the Korean peninsula, the cycle of murder seems infinite as revenge’s collateral damage only breeds more rage. Whether random civilians or families used as pawns in their game, Kim Soo-hyeon ends up acquiring more blood on his hands than the villain by not ending Kyung-chul’s life with his own murder or a prison sentence. It’s a selfish desire to find retribution initially condoned by Joo-yeon’s father (Ho-jin Jeon) before eventually discovering it’s high price. Kim’s would be in-law realizes with the help of his other daughter Se-yeon (Yoon-seo Kim) that the sacrifice isn’t worth it. His slain child will never be returned and no matter how much he’d love to see her killer suffer, at some point the process proves too much.

But this isn’t a kind world of forgiveness. Justice is in the eye of the beholder and bloodlust prevails over intellect. Like Kyung-chul’s friend Tae-jo (Moo-sung Choi) being possessed by the human flesh he consumes after his own grisly murders, Kim’s need for vengeance can never be quenched. And this is where I Saw the Devil falls apart for me. I’m a fan of grotesquely excessive violence as the next guy if it serves a purpose. Here, however, it seemed too much for the sake of being too much. We understand what the filmmakers are getting at when Kim allows his prey to walk free in order to scoop him up for more torture and accept the purpose is in order to put innocent blood on the hands of our so-called hero. But how many times must we see it? Do we really need this game go on three times before tables turn and the film gets interesting again?

It’s a futile exercise in violence that began to bore me since it was all too easy for Kim. Byung-hun Lee does a phenomenal job repressing his pain in order to focus the rage. I love that he enlists a young co-worker on the force to his cause and appreciate his tumultuous emotions when they’re shown. But the game is too simple for him and hubris takes control. Kim will defeat Kyung-chul in hand-to-hand combat every time without question and yet we must continually watch the fight. And even though he follows this brute with a GPS pill lodged in his intestinal tract in order to save the other women he attempts to rape and kill once set free, the fact these women are tortured up until the point of penetration because of Kim becomes too much to bear. This is war and the filmmakers show how inconsequential anonymous collateral damage is to victory.

Yet, while the middle portion becomes redundant in its motives, I cannot deny the effectiveness of Acts One and Two. Jee-woon Kim has a steady grasp on his vision and the mood set is nothing short of tense. The opening murder of Joo-yeon is an unforgettable feat of chaotic cruelty that begins its kinetic assault with the film’s biggest scare as Min-sik Choi’s ax-wielding monster is illuminated by the woman’s headlights. Glass, blood, flesh, grunts, and screams pound our senses into submission in a process repeated throughout as more women suffer and Kyung-chul’s penance is paid. It’s an unrelentingly hellish world fearlessly shown without compassion or hope. A battle that can never be won as both sides suffer abject psychological defeat, we in the audience find it hard to accept victory as well when all we see is death and destruction.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the intention all along—to pound violence into us to the point of disgust. We are the ones who see the devil, not Kim or Joo-yeon. It’s too easy to say Kyung-chul is the demon without an ability to experience pain or fear. The final scene’s brilliant orchestration shows this to be untrue as even mad men love something. We all have our breaking points and the capacity to cross the line of decency in order to suit our warped, distraught minds in the face of horrific tragedy. We all have the ability to conjure the devil and do his bidding in the name of pleasure, justice, or whatever excuse comes to mind. The blood spilled here is remorseless and unflinching; similar to Oldboy, the film I kept wishing it were. But whereas we could rally behind Chan-wook Park‘s hero—coincidentally played by our villain, Min-sik Choi—condoning anyone’s actions here would be on par with committing the act ourselves.

Hoon-jung Park and Jee-woon Kim have therefore made us complicit in everything. We watch because violence has become entertainment. I’ll even admit to rooting for Kyung-chul so I could revel in my love for watching our world’s pessimism projected in art as evil prevailing over hope. Choi is fantastic as this psychopath laughing at his pursuer and never ceasing to victimize more women on his journey to false freedom. His character is more than a simple antagonistic force; he channels the evil we’re all capable of performing. He’s a mirror for Kim and anyone watching who feels that rush of adrenaline when someone’s head is bashed in. And maybe this is why I couldn’t fully commit myself to enjoying it since I refuse to acknowledge the violence as numbing instead of repetitious. Perhaps I only saw it as monotonous because I’ve lost my ability to react. That’s just too frightening a thought to admit.

[1] CHOI Min-sik in I SAW THE DEVIL, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
[2] KIM In-seo in I SAW THE DEVIL, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
[3] LEE Byung-hun and KIM In-seo in I SAW THE DEVIL, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

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