"Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you" - Friedrich Nietzsche
When a secret service agents wife and unborn child are brutally slain in an act of sickening violence, he begins a campaign of torment upon the man responsible; a serial killer with absolutely no bounds. Yet as he rains down hurt after hurt on the man who destroyed his life, he risks becoming just the thing he seeks to annihilate.
I SAW THE DEVIL is the sixth full length feature film from Korean director, Jee-woon Kim, the man responsible for the critically acclaimed A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. Here he spreads his black wings in seriously impressive fashion. Creating a film that truly lives up to its rather brilliant title. Where as TWO SISTERS was all subtlety and nuance, DEVIL is a firestorm of violence, heartbreak and hopelessness. Its also for my money the most entertaining, exciting and damned near perfect film of the year.
Two things got me interested in this film way back during production. One was the director and the other was one of the two men who carry the film. The endlessly brilliant Min-sik Choi. I was first introduced to Choi in the cult classic OLDBOY, and have loved his work ever since. Hes a guy who pulls no punches in his performances, and his screen presence is formidable. In I SAW THE DEVIL , he reaches new highs, (or lows), in his scathing performance as a morally bankrupt, utterly despicable killer, Kyung-chul. The things this bastard gets up to in this film will sicken you, and yet he remains human. Disgustingly so. He never feels like a movie villain. He simply seems real. This animal could live right around the corner, and his acts are, sadly, very much based in reality. He is the jet black demonic yang to Byung-hun Lee's yin. As Kim-Soo Hyeon, a secret service agent who's looking to the future with hope and joy until his world is brutally torn asunder. Lee's performance is equally impressive. His calm restrained demeanor hides a torrent of hatred and hurt inside him, which he cannot control, nor wants to. His driving force becomes vengeance, and jesus, does he lay it on heavy.
Both wonderful leads are surrounded by a pitch perfect cast who flesh the whole sordid, sickening world out very convincingly. A standout being Gook-hwan Jeon, as Kim-Soo's father in law. His portrayal of parent grieving the loss of his daughter is beautifully played. His relationship with his son in law is strengthened by mutual despair, but he also works within the piece as a counterpoint to Kim-Soo's unending hunger for vengeance. Unlike his son in law, his moral compass remains intact. Where is the point when teh quest for honor becomes one of shame? What is the nature of justice and who has the right to decide on it? Can an act of vengeance ever lead to any real form of redemtion? Its this sort of inherent intelligence that helps I SAW THE DEVIL soar way above the pack. Its a very stark study of grief and loss and its effects on the human psyche and soul, that just happens to be played out in a world full of violence, confusion and injustice.
AND in I SAW THE DEVIL, the violence comes fast and hard. Within a few minutes of the stark, creepy opening credits, you find yourself thrown in at the deep end, and you never get to come up for air for the entire two and a half hour running time. Its like a roller coaster ride through hell. And damn, is it a tough watch. The violence here is very much grounded in reality. Its painful, unflinching and it always comes with a consequence. I was particularly disturbed by the discovery of mutilated boody of Kim-soo's wife. I wont go into detail but its deeply haunting and feels incredibly real. People go through this sort of nightmare all the time in our societies. And seeing it visually realized so authentically really done a number on me. From that point on I found myself screaming for revenge, just as Kim-Soo does. And THAT is fine directing. Your placed in the mindset of our 'hero', and willing him on to make Kyung's life a living hell. Your with him all the way. The director knows that the catharisis wont be complete unless the audience is fully complicit, and has set about creating a fearless work of cinema that never shies away from showing atrocities on both sides. You may find yourself questioning how far YOU would go to reclaim justice for those you love. That the crazy as fuck Kyung seems to relish this battle of wits and human tolerance only serves to deepen the conflict, and enhance the murky waters of its ultimate message.
It should be said though that there is no glamorising of either violence or revenge in I SAW THE DEVIL. Quite the opposite. The main thrust of the message here is the dynamic between good and evil, and how someones goodness can be eroded in the face of the worlds horrors. And the message is very well realised. Its not a gore movie. You'll have seen far more violent films, but like the amazing INSIDE, they rarely FEEL more violent. I wont go into the myriad ways the human body is subjected to torment here, but its the sheer relentless realism of it all that cuts so deep. The violence is deplorable, but thats the whole point. There is great evil on display here, and its fucking chilling.
Now it may sound as though I SAW THE DEVIL is perhaps too tough to sit through, and this is where I think its true genius lies. Its a hard as hell movie, but when its all over and done and the final devestating image is burned into your mind, you'll be wishing it hadn't ended. Rarely will you see a film that blends stunningly choreographed mixed martial arts fight scenes with gut churning gore, real dramatic weight, thought provoking substance and yes, even some very funny, if extremely dark moments. Its a perfectly realized film and hits every single mark it aims for dead on. The leads are incredible, the script is brilliant, the soundtrack is on point and the direction flawless. The film just flies by.
Jee-woon Kim has proven himself a master of the genre here, and I'll be following all his work very closely from this day onward. For those who can handle this sort of material, its one of the very best you ll ever see. Its a fearless study of unthinkable evil andatale of justice, revenge and redemption.(or lack thereof), played out on an epic scale. You literally cant miss this film. I SAW THE DEVIL is a modern masterpiece that dares to explore the darkest reaches of the human soul, and gazing into the abyss has rarely been as hypnotic or riveting.