Directed By Kim Jee-woon
Starring Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Jeon Gook-hwan and Jeon Ho-jin
For grieving widower Soo-Hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), revenge isn’t just a dish best served cold, but in numerous courses. When his pregnant wife is murdered by sadistic serial killer Kyung-Chul (Choi Min-sik), the skilled secret service officer will stop at nothing to avenge her death. But just killing Kyung-Chul isn’t enough to satisfy Soo-Hyeon’s need for vengeance, and he engages in an unrelenting, torturous game of catch and release with the murderer, his morality and humanity quickly slipping away in his insatiable quest for revenge.
I Saw The Devil is a pretty gruesome film to watch at times – a film about vengeance, murder and suffering that pulls no punches when depicting either. But while it demands a cast-iron stomach when scenes of sliced Achilles tendons or heads being bludgeoned like piñatas roll around, it’s a violence made infinitely more palatable by the film’s sly, dark sense of humour, intelligent handling of its subject matter and a stunning display of craft.
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Director Kim Jee-woon (A Bittersweet Life, The Good, The Bad and the Weird) is just as likely to thrill you with an explosive flurry of close-quarters action or tickle your funny bone with a blackly comic gag as he is to gross you out. Gags like a serial killer skewered through the hand with a screwdriver struggling to pull it loose, only for the handle to pop off completely illicit uneasy giggles that help cut through the tension, while Soo-Hyeon frequently breaks out quick, brutal and thrilling military martial arts skills that’d put Jason Bourne to shame.
Then there’s Jee-woon’s ingenious use of technique (a kitchen scene unfolds with all the beats and shots of a slasher movie set-piece, only with a brutal killer as the helpless victim and unstoppable avenging cop Soo-Hyeon as the unseen stalker) and mind-boggling camerawork (a spinning 360 pan of the inside of a taxi cab as a frenzy of bloodletting erupts within turns a gruesome scene into a jaw-droppingly inventive piece of filmmaking).
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The leads at the centre of it all both do a predictably excellent job. OldBoy star Choi Min-sik relishes the role of the slimy, creepy killer and creates a villain who’s chillingly nonchalant, comically resilient and unpredictably volatile. Lee Byung-hun gets the more complex and less showy role, and while he’s a dab hand at playing cool and detached or seethingly intense, he impresses even more when exposing the character’s emotional devestation, keeping him just the right side of sympathetic when his morality starts to deteriorate. While we’re certainly not likely to begrudge Soo-Hyeon his need for vengeance – the revenge sub-genre is one of cinema’s most simple and enduring largely because the desire to see evil people get their grisly comeuppance is practically primal – he starts to lose our sympathies as the lengths of his plan become apparent.
Capturing and torturing Kyung-Chul only to release him, catching him again when he’s about to kill someone else is a tactic that might put the sadistic killer through more torment (and serves as some bizarre therapy as Soo-Hyeon steps in to save countless women where he couldn’t save his wife), but leaves too little to chance. Not only does Soo-Hyeon start to become the monster he’s hunting, but constantly risks giving a brutal murderer the chance to kill again if not caught at the right moment. Far from an exploitative revenge fantasy, I Saw The Devil is instead a meditation on the selfish, futile nature of vengeance.
Following in the footsteps of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, Kim Jee-woon’s own A Bittersweet Life, it’s a mystery how Korea keeps churning out such top-notch revenge movies, but audiences get to reap the rewards. Jee-woon’s darkly comic revenge-horror showcases excellent performances, pitch-black comedy and deliriously inventive filmmaking. It’s chillingly atmospheric and certainly gruesomely violent, but if you’ve got a strong stomach, then it’s a must-see.
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I Saw The Devil might be a grisly film, but it’s a visually stylish one, too, and the high definition transfer on Optimum’s UK Blu-ray is a beautiful one that’s crisp and detailed while preserving the film’s distinct colour palette. The Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is just as clear and impressive, while there’s a Korean LPCM 2.0 Stereo track included for good measure along with optional English subtitles, naturally.
The special features aren’t spectacular, but there’s 19 minutes worth of interviews with Kim Jee-woon and the two leads, and 18 minutes worth of on-set footage that doesn’t go too in-depth but offers a fun look behind the scenes as the cast and crew goof around and film scenes. Rounding out the set are a Teaser Trailer and a TV Spot.
I Saw The Devil is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk.
(Note: The images above were captured and saved at a reduced quality, and though they give an idea of how the film looks, they aren’t intended to reflect the true quality of the Blu-ray image itself.)