I've been trying, for over a week or so, to write a review for I Saw the Devil. In doing so, I've come up with pretty much a rambling mess of words I've deleted several times. I've previously read so many mixed reviews about it as well, and some of them made me scratch my head and say, Whaaaat?? I was surprised that there were people out there who actually didn't like it. So of course that made me go back and ponder the film yet again. What was there not to like? Granted it can't be literally categorized as a horror film, but I think if one watches the trailer, you can kind of see what you're in store for.
So I've thought about it and here's the deal. I like action films. I like anything that can be even halfway considered action. Give me a whole mess of nasty, bloody, shoot-'em-up, cut-'em-to-pieces, jaw-snapping, bone-crunching, revenge-soaked action films. I'm a massive fan of Jason Statham and his kick-ass-and-take-names-later attitude. I thoroughly enjoyed The Expendables. I am not embarrassed to say Bloodsport is on my DVD shelf. I've seen all the Rambo films - more than once. I watch Bruce Lee with my hubby. War movies are cool. Mel and his Road Warrior flicks? Check. Gladiators? Oh yes, please. Swords and Middle Earth? But of course. Pissed off cop movies? Most certainly. James Bond? Hells yeah. So that is my conclusion.
Does that make me a guy's girl? Probably, also considering my extreme love of horror, sci-fi and J.R.R. Tolkien to boot.
But that's beside the point. We're talking intense, S.Korean subtitled revenge films here. And this one has to be an example of one of the very best. From the mind of Ji-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters, among other reputable films) comes the story of Soo-hyun (Byung-hun Lee, whom I now have a profound crush on), a grief-stricken man who is trying to come to grips with the senseless murder of his beloved fiance Ju-yeon by a psychopathic serial killer. But murderous Kyung-chul (portrayed by none other than Old Boy star, Choi Min-sik) has no idea what he's in for. He just fucked with the wrong guy. You see, Soo-hyun is a whip-smart secret agent. Combine that with the fact that Ju-yeon's father is a retired police chief, and I think you can see where we're headed.
First and foremost, this film wastes no time getting right down to it. Ju-yeon is stranded in her car on a dark, snowy highway waiting for a tow truck while chatting with Soo-hyun on her cell. When a stranger appears at her car window and asks if she is alright, the tense Ju-yeon expresses thanks but sends him on his way. Unfortunately, he doesn't leave. In fact, he smashes the window, pulls her out of the car, and proceeds to beat her into unconsciousness with a hammer. The visual of him dragging her through the snow, leaving a blood trail behind, is sadly striking. Where he takes her and what he does to her is beyond comprehension.
The lair of a serial killer has been done on film countless times before, but perhaps not with so much realism. Violence is this guy's middle name, and even when Ju-yeon pleads for her life - adding the fact that she's pregnant to hope to jar some feelings in the madman standing over her with a very big meat cleaver - it doesn't disrupt his grisly task. As her engagement ring falls into a drain we, as the audience, are left in despair and wondering just what the point is.
What made it even more real to me, I think, are the brief moments before her death when Ju-yeon is still in her car and on the phone with Soo-hyun. He is apologizing for working on her birthday again, and quiet romantic exchanges are seen and heard, including a few verses of a song Soo-hyun sings to her to settle her nerves. Their love is blatantly evident, and the fact that they are such a gorgeous, happy couple doesn't hurt things either. I mean, don't you always feel worse for the beautiful people? Seriously, I have no doubt if me and my neighbor down the street who looks like Charlize Theron were both kidnapped by a serial killer, I'm pretty sure she'd have the sympathetic vote of pretty much everyone in my town. (And yes there is someone in my town who looks like Charlize Theron.)
The sickening scenes of the discovery of her body follow, with both her father and her fiancee struck with anguish as the truth is revealed.
However, when all the funereal happenings are over, Soo-hyun is not content with simply packing her away in his memory and moving on. Um, not even close.
And so begins the hunt for Kyung-chul. Obviously, Soo-hyun is not your average grieving widow. He's a top-class secret agent with a (Daniel Craig-esque) James Bond skill-set in place that rivals my Jason Statham on his best day.
After acquiring some cool surveillance gadgets at work and a list of four possible suspects from his future father-in-law, he sets out to wreak havoc and get some revenge for his lost love.
And so the hunter becomes the hunted...
Tracking down the first suspect, he finds him getting off to some porn and so Soo-hyun proceeds to bash his balls in quite rightly. Realizing he isn't his guy, he moves on to suspect number two. This poor chap goes ass over tin cups when Soo-hyun runs him down with his car. The gut-churning ass-whoopings he hands out in search of his prey are all too rewarding. I started to think perhaps I might be a tad demented for actually enjoying the brutal violence.
But when Soo-hyun tracks down suspect number three, we know that this is our guy. And it only takes a little chat with the killer's folks for Soo-hyun to go to Kyung-chul's house, rummage through his drawers, and realize with all certainty that he's on the right track.
In particular when he discovers the torture chamber and finds Ju-yeon's engagement ring. That's all it takes for him to go internally ballistic.
The scene in which the two finally meet is so rewarding that I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation of the ruthless ass-kicking to come. Kyung-chul is fairly deluded though, not having any idea that Soo-hyun isn't just a disgruntled fiancee ready to die in the name of love.
Their battle is swift and decisive, with Kyung-chul hitting the pavement in utter surprise and fear. Soo-hyun isn't finished here though, instead leaving the bastard incapacitated for the moment but soon aware of the cat and mouse game put into play.
And then... there's at least another hour of film. As ridiculous as that may sound, and for as much as you ask yourself how there could possibly be that much more to say...oh, there is. It is here where the film takes a relentless pace that doesn't end till the credits roll.
You see, Soo-hyun is trained for all kinds of covert situations and is used to chasing the worst of criminals, and so he decides not to finish off Kyung-Chul quite so easily. In fact, Soo-hyun wavers precariously between still human and a vicious machine. Feelings are secondary, and he practically becomes as cruel and merciless as the man from which he seeks retribution.
So what follows is violence, violence, and more violence. There's a berserk scene in a taxi cab that just screams over-the-top. Likewise, an unrestrained episode of foot carnage that makes Pet Sematary look like a picnic.
What I think I enjoyed the most was the chase. Or perhaps I just got off on watching Byung-hun Lee punishing the hell out of this poor chap.
Yeah, I think that's it.
And just when you think it's all over, Soo-hyun whispers in his target's ear: "Your nightmare's only getting worse..." And he's absolutely correct.
But the thing is, you want Soo-hyun to be maniacal. I found myself cheering him on every time he exacts a bit more justice by way of gory injuries and frenzied rage. His conscious is gone, he has nothing left to give him pleasure except the compulsion to torture Ju-yeon's killer. Even when her family begs him to stop his endless rampage, he simply cannot. He's got to see it through until the point that he can grasp the reality that Ju-yeon isn't coming back and that all the self-induced suffering in the world won't make him whole again. Morality is absent by this time in the film, and it was impossible, at least for me, not to encourage our hero (can we call him that?) to keep up the cruelty. You just want to see that bad guy go down. Will anything be brutal enough? Is there any death worthy of what he deserves?
It's no surprise that by the end of the film it's easy to feel completely drained and emotionally empty by the endless violence and complete wrath. After all, we've just sat through nearly two and a half hours of ferocious yet passionate violence. But to me, this is just one beautifully shot movie with palpable anguish that drives the story to its satisfying yet terribly melancholy ending. The acting is fantastic, and though I was already familiar with Choi Min-sik, I have a new-found admiration for his counterpart, Byung-hun Lee. This guy is not only a great actor, but is just so lovely to look at. Makes me want to buy a poster of him shirtless and hang it on my wall like a thirteen year old. Doubtful that my husband would approve of this, but the thought is already out there.
So after all this rambling what do we know?
We know there is an unimaginable amount of nearly non-stop violence, some tender moments between lovers and at the funeral service that served to humanize and justify the events, and great acting and cinematography. If you like your revenge served up with sides of malevolence and hatred, I can think of no better film to tickle your fancy.
Easily one of my favorite films I've seen so far this year.