KOREA 2010 Directed by: Kim Ji-Woon Written by: Park Hoon-Jung Produced by: Kim Hyung-Woo, Jo Sung-Won, Kim Jae-Young, Kim Jung-Hwa Cinematography: Lee Mo-Gae Editing by: Nam N-Yeong Cast: Byung-Hun Lee, Min-Sik Choi, Gook-Hwan Jeon, In-Seo Kim, Cheon Ho Jin, Oh San-Ha, Kim Yoon-Seo
Kyung-Chul is a serial killer who one fine day chooses the wrong victim: the soon-to-be wife of special detective Dae-Hoon. Dae-Hoon, who feels he failed to protect his wife, promises to at least pay back the pain to her killer times ten thousand. He takes a two-week leave from work to track down Kyung-Chul – once he gets hold of him he inflicts all kinds of violence on him, driving him to the edge of sanity.
I SAW THE DEVIL has made waves even before its premiere and has become notorious as the movie being too violent to get a theatrical release in Korea. It had to undergo extensive re-editing to finally be found fit for screening. The result is a (still) very disturbing, dark, brutal and painfully realistic film reminiscent of some of the most rampant works from Korea.
As expected, I SAW THE DEVIL shows all the hallmarks of Kim Ji-Woon’s style of filmmaking, along with a lot of Korean trademark look and feel, making for an outstandingly classy movie that puts itself on top of this year’s output made in Korea with ease. Direction, writing, production, editing, music and acting are all top-notch and could earn the movie awards in each of the categories, and altogether they create a very organic and exciting movie. There are few movies each year that achieve such a high standard of perfection, disregard what corner of the world you are looking.
Going into details would spoil the viewing experience as the film lives off of the character’s moves, the events set in motion by either the killer or his nemesis. It’s a film that you cannot describe adequately as the story development doesn’t follow conventional story telling. So seeing is the ultimate way to understand the film and to assess if it works for you or not.
The crucial point I believe is the question how to put I SAW THE DEVIL into perspective. For viewers who are not familiar with hard-boiled thrillers made in Korea or other Asian countries I SAW THE DEVIL will look extremely raw and “new”, a radical experience that has little in common with the Hollywood approach to filmmaking where the violence is mostly a means of dramatization and seldom has a purpose. Looking at I SAW THE DEVIL from a Korean perspective, I feel it’s safe to say that it ranks among the best genre movies of its kind, but is neither as inventive as OLD BOY, not as depressive as SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, nor as tragic-comical as Mr. Kim’s own A BITTERSWEET LIFE.
Both main characters just do what they do, there is little surprise in how they act or react. Once the path is chosen there is no turning back. I SAW THE DEVIL is mostly innovative through its new take on revenge, the prolonged torture of the bad guy that turns the good guy into a monster himself. But what is missing is a real insight into what the characters feel or think, or maybe it’s just that simple: the killer is a depraved psycho with no motif, reason or directional thinking, and the detective is so consumed by his mission that there is no room for any other thought or character trait than the role of an avenger.
Maybe it’s a little unfair to say that I SAW THE DEVIL is a cold movie, but beyond the beautiful snowy landscape and chilling events any kind of complex emotion has gone missing. Identification with the characters remains difficult throughout the film: as much as we sympathize with Dae-Hoon and as much as we enjoy Kyung-Chul’s suffering there’s always a safety distance that prevents us from involving too much. Maybe that’s a good thing that keeps us sane, but it also prevents a deeper involvement of the audience.
I SAW THE DEVIL is an outstanding genre movie and extremely neat filmmaking, but I do not dare to say it is innovative, adds anything much to the genre or is a brilliant masterpiece in its own right. Essentially, it’s an amalgamation of things we have seen before, a great mashup of motifs and themes and scenes of the serial killer / revenge flick that results in something I would describe as Kim Ji-Woon’s very own interpretation of the serial killer / revenge film, but it is not a terribly genuine kind of work (says the critic who wish he’d be the one helming the criticized work).
The bottom line: I SAW THE DEVIL is highly recommended, it’s quintessential filmmaking nonetheless. It will leave you impressed. This way, or another.
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