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By K.J. Doughton | February 27, 2011

A woman’s broken body being dragged through stark-white snow. A human head rolling along a river-bottom, its raven hair swirling with the tides. The flashlights of a forensic team, gleaming off black waters and casting light into even darker skies.

Awful. Beautiful.

“I Saw the Devil” is a gorgeous film about horrible things. Days after the screening, I still carry its unsettling baggage with me. Korean genre master Kim Jee-woon has assembled this Frankensteinian beast with surgical skill. But do you really want his bloody hands leaving their imprint on your brain?

Remember when “Se7en” was subversive and shocking? Compared to “I Saw the Devil,” it’s a life-affirming lifter-upper. Did “Blue Valentine” bum you out? It’s visual Prozac compared to this cinematic Quaalude overdose.  Even so… “I Saw the Devil” is art of the highest order, an unflinching vision brought to full bloom. I love it. I hate it.

“I Saw the Devil” is like pitch-black Charles Bronson with subtitles (it was made, and then banned, in Korea). Elite special agent Dae-hoon (Lee Byung-hyun) is forever scarred by the brutal death of his pregnant fiancée. Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik of “Oldboy,” another feel-bad classic), a deplorable serial killer, is the culprit.

Completely and utterly warped by his lover’s tragic demise, Dae-hoon seeks revenge. But not just any old payback. He wants to toy with Kyung-chul. Wants to maim his nemesis one fleshy bit at a time. Wants to paw, catlike, then watch this lunatic squirm before inflicting the next clawed swipe.

“I Saw the Devil” begins where other thrillers typically wrap up. Early into its first reel, Dae-hoon has already captured Kyung-chul, force-feeding the dangerous cretin a transmitter-pill. While this ingested tracking device remains in the killer’s digestive system, our scarred “hero” can hone in on him. Sever an Achilles tendon, perhaps. Then set him loose again.

But there’s a big problem. The longer that Kyung-chul is toyed with, the more pissed off he gets. Worse yet, he seems impervious to conventional human feelings like pain or sorrow. Each moment out of custody is another opportunity to gleefully inflict more mayhem onto innocent bystanders. By keeping this creeper alive in selfish, single-minded pursuit of vengeance, Dae-hoon is aiding and abetting his prey.

Delicate moments provide respites from the violence – or do they? Two grieving men share a park bench, cocooned by comforting clouds of mist. But their sad, empty eyes merely magnify the impact of their loss. Another scene lingers on the face of a man confronting an awful truth. His hand rises to stunned face, jaw dropping in mortified disbelief.

These are the film’s “light touches.”

As for the “dark” factor…. just when you think the film’s gory cycle of revenge has reached its limit, something even more despicable happens. Think cannibalism, fish hooks, and guillotines. Kim Jee-woon further intensifies the film’s projected human wounds through vivid music and sound effects. Mournful strings. The cold jingle of metal chains dragging across a concrete floor. The dull “clunk” of metal hitting bone.

Strong stuff. But however furious its violence, “I Saw the Devil” is no exploitation film. It’s as serious as a heart attack, posing two fascinating questions: is vengeance really all that sweet? Can a jaded psychopath be “forced” to feel emotion? Kim Jee-woon has perspectives on both, and they’re hit home with maximum impact. Dae-hoon and Kyung Chul come across as real men. We feel for the former. We loathe the latter. Reluctantly, we come to understand both.

“I Saw the Devil” is a dazzling downer. Artistically, it’s a great piece of work. But do we really need another onscreen trip to hell, however well-crafted the hand basket?

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  1. GoGo says:

    I’m curious about the banning, too. I read that it was the violence, but have yet to hear of a film that had to be trimmed by 70 seconds (I think that was the amount I read) just to be *released* as adult-only.
    WOW. After I saw the “Watch Now On Demand” option on the official website I practically sprained my fingers grabbing the Comcast remote (not there yet, dammit). I hope it is soon, since I don’t even know if it’s going to be playing in a theater in my time zone, let alone my city, for over 6 months. In the last 5 years I’ve gone from being mildly interested in to very, very enthusiastic about South Korean cinema, especially the crime genre. Thanks for the review; I haven’t seen more than the trailer yet get the strong feeling your review will be dead-on. Oldboy was one of the first few movies I purchased after we finally saved enough for a plasma-screen. Bleak, brutal, and even during the vicious sucker-punches to the viewer the remarkable care and craftsmanship of nearly every single frame is evident. Obviously, there’s many more in this category …ones I want to see on BluRay if I have a choice, then wonder if that’s such a good idea when it comes to the type of dreams I’d prefer to avoid. BTW, as a freelance writer/editor AND film geek, I read many, many reviews and yours is one of best-written I’ve enjoyed in months-will be looking for more. I get so sick of reading both the sloppy and the trying-too-hard reviews (equally headache-inducing) that I almost forgot what a really impressive one looks like. Hope to find more soon.

  2. Amy R. Handler says:

    Thanks KJ! I can’t wait to see the film, especially after all the interesting comments posted today. One thing that I’ll look at is ambiguity in the character’s personna, and in the film overall. I’m also interested in questions provoked by cinema, much like the one suggested by Mark. BTW, Was the film banned in Korea because of all the violence, or for some other reason? I ask because so many Korean films are violent but are never banned. I recently interviewed
    Pavel Bardin about his previously banned film, “Russia 88.” The ban lasted only a short while, but it caused a lot of problems for the filmmaker.

  3. Mark Bell says:

    My question, after seeing this movie: “Is every stranger a serial killer?” It was Wide World of Murderers in that flick. I wasn’t 100% on-board with the climax, but the rest of the movie was brutally great.

  4. Noah Lee says:

    Fantastic review and dead on. I love this movie but it’s certainly unsettling. I couldn’t imagine sitting through this and Cold Fish (or heck, Bedevilled) back to back!

  5. KJ Doughton says:

    Two very different films, indeed. I believe the U.S. release date is March 4, 2011, through Magnet Pictures.

  6. Amy R. Handler says:

    Neat review! I liked the director’s earlier, “A Tale of Two Sisters.” If you like unsettling journeys into the minds of possible killers, check it out. “Sisters” is subtle and ambiguous— and seems a little different than what you’re describing in his new film.

    Do you know where the new film will be shown in the US?

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