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SPOILER: Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is a dangerous psychopath serial killer. He has committed infernal serial murders in diabolic ways that one cannot even imagine and his victims range from young women to even children. The police have chased him for a long time, but were unable to catch him. One day, Joo-yeon, daughter of a retired police chief becomes his prey and is found dead in a horrific state. Her fiancé Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), a top secret agent, decides to track down the murderer himself. He promises himself that he will do everything in his power to take bloody vengeance against the killer, even if it means that he must become a monster himself to get this monstrous and inhumane killer.Written by
An uncompromising, unsettling and unforgettable thriller
This movie is not for the squeamish, or the faint of heart. Censors claimed it was offensive to human dignity. These were the kinds of things they told the audience at the world premiere screening of the Uncut Version of I Saw the Devil at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. I had heard the movie was pretty graphic, but I never expected that it would push any boundaries. I turned out to be only half right.
After finding out his fiancée has been brutally murdered, secret agent Dae-hoon (Byung-hun Lee) is at a loss. With the help of his father-in-law, he sets out on a revenge plot to find the man who did it. He quickly finds the culprit, Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi). He beats him pretty badly, but instead of killing him, he leaves him alive. He wants to stalk his prey, and exact his revenge slowly and increasingly more painfully.
Going in with very few ideas of what I was about to see, I was startled and thrilled at the tenacious audacity on display from the opening scene all the way until the final frames. The film is a gritty, merciless experience that could never be truly recreated in North America. This is the kind of hard-boiled revenge thriller you could only find in Korea. And to hear that even the censors there could not handle Kim Ji-woon's complete vision makes the film all the more uncompromising and astounding. It has taken me well over a week to try and come up with the words to describe and review the film, but never once have I forgotten anything I saw. It is quite simply, unforgettable.
I was right in assuming the film would not push the boundaries of what can be shown in regards to graphic violence and gore. But it comes really close. It makes Park Chan-Wook's entire Vengeance Trilogy look about as violent as the Toy Story Trilogy. Blood sprays, flies, drips, gushes – every verb or way blood can possibly flow out of the human body occurs over the course of the film. It relishes in it no matter if the shot is raw, unflinching and real, or hyper stylized and completely over-the-top. One sequence involving a brutal double murder as the camera swoops around the scene in a circle is simply magnificent to watch, both to see how much blood is spilt and for how wicked and incredible a shot it is.
The revenge tale at the core of I Saw the Devil is not all too original, but it is the story and idea around it that is. Very rarely do we see a film with two characters that start off completely different, but very slowly become all in the same. Dae-hoon and Kyung-chul are both very stubborn individuals, who will not back down from each other. They just keep at each other, and even as Kyung-chul is continually beaten, abused and victimized, he never once lets up. I keep coming back to a comparison with Batman and The Joker in The Dark Knight, and how those two menaces push each other to their physical limits, and that is exactly what happens in this film. While it was easy to pick sides in Dark Knight, Ji-woon makes it increasingly difficult for the audience to figure out who they should sympathize with here. It is a haunting and blatantly moral-defying story, and its raw and emotional undertones are more than difficult to swallow.
But the key problem I found with the film is Ji-woon's lack of ability to know when to cut. There are easily twenty minutes that could be chopped right out of the film, and none of its edge would be lost in the process. I was glued to the screen for the majority of the film, but found myself checking my watch more than once because I was totally baffled as to why it runs over 140 minutes. There is only so much revenge one can take and comprehend, and having the film run so long makes it all too easy to call out as being self-indulgent. I respect the film, and I respect Ji-woon as a filmmaker (I wanted to seek out the rest of his film catalogue immediately after the lights came up), but it just makes such an incredible movie feel a bit sloppy and weakened as a cohesive package.
Another inconsistent element is Lee's Dan-hoon. We never learn much about him outside of his being a secret agent and wanting to inflict as much pain as he can through his revenge scheme. So how are we to assume he was not a sick and twisted individual in the first place? How are we to know this is not his first time inflicting such a painful revenge? He rarely speaks, and his cold, calculating eyes never once give us a hint of any further development. It is a great performance by Lee, but it is one that feels very underdeveloped – outside of some rather obvious sequences.
But then, anyone would look underdeveloped when standing next to Choi. The man gives a performance that is the stuff of legend. He was incredible as the lead in Oldboy as the man who was wronged, and is even better as the wrongdoer here. He brings out the monster in Kyung-chul all too easily, and his riveting performance is unmissable. The transformation into this disgusting, psychopathic creature is nothing short of amazing. He chews up scenery at every turn, and is magnetic on screen. Nothing even comes close to equaling the power, intensity and dare I say authenticity he puts into this character. He is the stuff of nightmares.
I Saw the Devil is a great revenge thriller, but is far from perfect. Choi's electric performance alone should become required viewing for anyone with any interest in film.
(An edited version of this review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).
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