I Saw The Devil review
|REVIEWS - MOVIES|
This Korean revenge thriller is superbly made; but an overlong plot and a nasty misogynist flavor keep it from true demonic greatness...
Don’t you hate it when a top-notch thriller goes and spoils it all with a silly plot and a horrific rape scene? Actually, that never happens. While the likes of Tony Scott and Michael Mann are sensible enough to combine intelligent, approachable plots with propulsive action, I Saw The Devil director Jee-woon Kim chooses to make his film an entirely niche endeavour by adding graphic content and unsympathetic characters to the mix. It’s a great shame because for 90 minutes of its – eventually exhausting – 141-minute running time, this Korean revenge flick is engrossing and brilliantly made.
As secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung Hun-Lee) seeks vengeance for the murder of his pregnant fiancée by serial killer Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi), a straightforward tale of grief-driven retribution grows into a demented game of cat-and-mouse where an eye for an eye isn’t enough – sliced tendons and broken bones are on the menu too. Jee-woon Kim’s storytelling is stark and shocking, and the savagery of the film’s first killing is an early warning that no punches will be pulled for the next two hours. We’re ‘treated’ to decapitation, the use of a lead pipe as a murder weapon and a breathless fight in a greenhouse, filmed Raimi-style after Kim saves a young girl from being raped.
The subject matter is undeniably unpleasant, the violence extreme and the characters amoral but it’s gripping nonetheless, with cinematographer Mogae Lee’s stunningly diverse camerawork backed with an angular, Hitchock-esque score from the oddly-named Mowg.
"...rather than subjecting him to some swift and brutal retribution, he decides to take a Bond-villain approach and neglect to kill him while he has the chance. Repeatedly."
Unfortunately, Jee-woon Kim is guilty of grossly overegging a foul-tasting pudding. Just an hour has passed when Kim finds Kyung-chul but rather than subjecting him to some swift and brutal retribution, he decides to take a Bond-villain approach and neglect to kill him while he has the chance. Repeatedly. These missed opportunities are all part of Kim’s plan to impose the same horror on Kyung-chul that he inflicted on countless vulnerable women – as well as proving that two wrongs probably don’t make a right – but the method in his madness is inscrutable and frustrating.
Kim’s attempts to entrap Kyung-chul also result in the film’s least palatable aspect – its treatment of women – being brought to the fore with upsetting results. One sequence sees our ‘hero’ rescuing a pharmaceutical nurse from the killer; yet he intervenes minutes, rather than seconds into her assault. A woman is also a central character in the most distressing scene in the entire film, after Kyung-chul has holed up at a cannibal friend’s country lair (in a subversion of the typical lore of serial killers as loners). After some blackly comic/horrifically nihilistic dialogue and a brief sequence in which the cannibal selects a female torture victim from a dungeon, Kyung-chul intrudes on his friend’s girlfriend-cum-slave and rapes her.
It’s an unnecessary sequence given we’re quite aware Kyung-chul is a monster, yet it is the direction the scene takes that’s the most troubling aspect. Similar to the infamous Straw Dogs scene, Kyung-chul’s victim is shown initially resisting the rape before beginning to ‘enjoy’ it. There’s probably a sideways point to be made about the impact of movie violence in that this sequence is wholly more horrific than any of Kyung-chul’s murders or even the gruesome moment where Kim slices the psycho’s ankle tendon. But in terms of I Saw The Devil alone, it’s a needless and disgusting nod to a rape myth that has no place on a cinema screen.
This sequence, and the maddening nature of Kim’s plan for vengeance – with every missed opportunity to kill the killer resulting in torture for another victim – detract from a frequently excellent revenge tale. While it hammers home its point too often, I Saw The Devil is an intriguing take on an oft-seen story, with Kim slowly but surely becoming as monstrous as his prey. For such an extreme piece, there are more laughs than you would expect and a cracking ‘meta’ moment as Kim is counselled away from his mission with the words ‘revenge is for movies – that bastard’s a psycho’.
But for all its relentless action and Min sik-Choi’s masterly portrayal of one of film’s most evil serial killers, I Saw The Devil frustrates too often to truly succeed. It’s too in thrall to the excess of Kyung-chul’s savagery and Kim’s damaging obsession for its subtextual comments on the nature of evil to convince; and when Kim warns ‘your nightmare’s getting worse’, the hearts of all but the most ardent fans of K-cinema will sink. It’s a film of great vengeance, furious anger but too much inhumanity to merit repeat viewings.
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