"He's one of our kind... he's playing a game. The hunter becomes the hunted."
Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-shik) is a deeply twisted psychopath who kills for pleasure, and though he has been committing serial killings for years, the police have, so far, been unable to even come close to catching him. However, when he stalks, tortures and brutally murders the daughter of a retired police chief, the girl’s secret agent fiancé, Kim Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), decides to track the killer down and exact revenge, regardless of what depths he must stoop to in order to do so…
Both the plot and themes of I Saw The Devil are largely centred around the characters of serial killer Jang and Agent Kim - with similarities between the two becoming increasingly apparent as Agent Kim's desperation for utter revenge takes hold - and, as his character darkens, we see all too clearly that, like Jang, he will stop at nothing to get what he wants (or thinks he wants), even when the consequences of his actions threaten to impact further on those around him.
I Saw The Devil is a graphic and gruesome hardgore thriller, but while the story itself is relatively simple and straightforward, that doesn't, in fact, work against the film, and instead helps to allow the underlying themes to be deftly addressed without infringing on the natural pacing of the plot, the action, or the emotional content within.
Female characters are majorly, and noticeably, objectified within I Saw The Devil - deliberately serving only as a means to an end (more often than not, a means to Jang's twisted ends) - adding further to the, already present, feeling of misogyny within his actions, which is also so inherent to his entire persona. However, the depictions of women within the film still manage to elicit emotional resonance throughout, thereby increasing both the shockingness of the graphically gory scenes, and viewer empathy for each of the female victims - despite viewers knowing a great deal less about them than the male characters.
At its core, I Saw The Devil deals ostensibly with the concept of revenge and the idea that, far from bringing closure, payback actually creates an emptiness equal to, or perhaps even greater than, the feelings and events which caused the need and desire for it in the first place, and shows, in no uncertain terms, that in order to exact that revenge, a person must be prepared to take on, and (at least partly) become, a persona somewhat akin to that of the individual(s) on whom retribution is sought.
There can, of course, be no happy ending to a story such as this, but that's the whole point, and it is made blatantly clear that once the act of revenge has begun there's no turning back, no comfort, no appeasement of loss or longing, and ultimately no resolution to the darkness created by it.
I Saw The Devil is certainly brutal, visceral and, at times, shocking, but fans of extreme cinema watching the uncensored version (the film was twice given a "restricted"/"limited" rating in South Korea and was only eventually released in normal cinemas after sufficient cuts had been made to sufficiently appease the ratings board) may question why the film has been the subject of so much controversy since first being submitted for ratings classification. Director Kim Ji-woon (you can read the Hangul Celluloid one-on-one interview with Kim Ji-woon by clicking here) believes the reason for the ratings issues lies, at least partly, in the fact that many of the violent, gory scenes feature two of the most well known and popular actors in South Korea, and were therefore seen as much more shocking there than in other countries. There is indeed a lot of graphic violence in I Saw The Devil, but not to an extent which "severely damages the dignity of human values", as claimed by the Korean Media Ratings Board.
While the brutality is (as already mentioned) widespread throughout the film, it must also be said that there is a noticeable beauty to many of the scenes - with genuinely moving and poignant moments taking centre stage on several occasions - and, with vicious acts regularly juxtaposed with ideas readily associated with culture (killings often carried out while the murderer listens to classical music, for example), Jang's killings repeatedly seem almost like an artist at work on a new canvas, albeit a canvas painted with blood.
As would be expected in any Kim Ji-woon film, I Saw The Devil is visually sumptuous throughout. The direction and cinematography is exemplary and fans of Kim Ji-woon's previous films will be in no doubt, at any point, that they are watching his work.
The musical score further raises the level of proceedings and perfectly complements each scene, almost effortlessly.
A visceral, brutal, yet at times beautiful, film, I Saw The Devil deftly shows that no closure, appeasement or fulfillment is to be found in the act of revenge, with only emptiness and the unforeseen consequences of vengeful actions ultimately resulting from it.
I Saw The Devil is Choi Min-sik's first film in four years, but his phenomenal portrayal of Jang makes it seem like he has never been away. Choi actually brought the original synopsis for the film to director Kim Ji-woon (a rare example of an actor choosing a film's director, rather than the other way round) and it is clear from his impassioned performance that he utterly revels in playing the role of the twisted serial killer.
Lee Byung-hun was cast, by Kim Ji-woon, as Agent Kim because of his ability to play cold-hearted and calculating characters so well and, in I Saw The Devil, his performance does not disappoint. His portrayal of the heart-broken secret agent who becomes obsessed with revenge, and gradually becomes somewhat of a monster in his own right, is pitch perfect throughout, and regularly leaves viewers with questions as to how much on his side they really are, or should be.
The very different acting styles of Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun fit together perfectly, and routinely add a further level of quality to an already exemplary film.
The rest of the cast play very much supporting roles to those of the two main characters, but each gives an excellent performance throughout.
Cast (Actor... Character):
Lee Byung-hun… Kim Soo-hyun
Choi Min-sik… Jang Kyung-chul
Jeon Gook-hwan… Squad chief Jang
Cheon Ho-jin… Section chief Oh
Oh San-ha… Joo-yun
Kim Yoon-seo… Se-yun
***UK fans of South Korean cinema will be glad to hear that Optimum Releasing has acquired the rights to distribute the uncensored version of I Saw The Devil in the United Kingdom.***
More information on this as and when it becomes available.