Your nightmare is only getting worse
While many action films hide behind a thinly veiled question to establish their legitimacy as art, “I Saw the Devil” (by director Kim Ji-woon) makes no such attempt. It is pure, raw, grindhouse violence, with no conflict resolution and superb character development.
Starring Cho Min-sik (of “Oldboy”) and Lee Byung-hun (of “A Bittersweet Life”), the film does a wonderful job at illustrating the similarities between two distinct characters. Min-sik and Byung-hun’s respective roles as criminal psychopath Kyung-chul and secret agent Soo-hyun are cliche, yes, but at least the movie doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.
One snowy night, in the desolate outskirts of Seoul, a woman is brutally murdered. The fiancee of never-present government agent Soo-hyun is cruelly dismembered and dumped in the Han river. His insatiable lust for revenge drives the simple plot of this film.
Byung-hun’s interpretation of the unstable Soo-hyun violently wallowing in his own self pity is an acting triumph to be seen. As he plows through the most degenerate suspects South Korea has to offer, the audience has a difficult time distinguishing between the revenge Soo-hyun relishes and the mayhem that riddles him with guilt.
Min-sik’s portrayal of Kyung-chul is a lesson in straight-forward acting. The obsessive murderer is cold, wry, and passionate about his “work.” Min-sik delivers predictable, “bad-guy” lines with fervor and poise, scaring the hell out of everyone around him. The much-talked-about “taxi-cab scene” highlights his dexterity. After gracing his way into an occupied vehicle, he makes several macabre, foreboding witicisms before stabbing both passengers in the throat, grabbing the wheel, and running them all into the median.
At one point in the film Soo-hyun tracks Kyung-chul to a remote home in the country-side. Here, the delicate, flawless fight scene between the two provides the soundtrack to the film. The action is so fast paced and thrilling that it literally takes on a percussive quality, keeping a steady rhythm that is only accented by the one-off window pane shattering or gun misfiring.
The film is very atmospheric, a cold damp feeling hangs naggingly in the air. Colors in frame feel saturated, dark and bold. The overall tone of the film is exaggeratedly heavy with very little variety. On an offbeat occasion, dark-humor is used to transition from one scene from the next: a handle falls off a weapon, or someone slips on a fish hook.
Cinematography wise, what makes this movie great is Ji-woon’s use of still frames. His style has a very photographic feel about it. During a confrontation in a derelict plant nursery, Ji-woon frames the scene for an uncomfortably long time. A trick that both builds suspense and shows off the setting.
If you’re looking for a film that will foster pretentious discussions about human nature or offbeat philosophies, don’t go to “I Saw the Devil.” The closest thing this movie has to an overarching question is: “So, how many people can a few guys kill in two hours?” What the movie is long on, however, is strong acting, aesthetic complexity, and memorable scenes.