Kim Jee-woon has only directed six feature length films, some of which are considered nothing short of masterpieces by films experts and fans alike, the rest still being excellent bodies of work. A tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life are two that stand out the most among his short but memorable pallet. One a dark and violent tale of a broken man out for revenge, the other a creepy dip into the horror genre, but more so a deep character study, and some superb story telling. You might call I Saw the Devil a combination of the two. Though it lacks the “horror” elements of Tale of Two Sisters, it still embodies Kim’s ability to carefully craft some truly memorable characters, and tell a rich story in the process. And like A Bittersweet Life, you can expect some truly brutal violence. I Saw the Devil is violent, very very violent, and it doesn’t hold back one bit. It makes sure you as the viewer are squirming in your seat and almost feeling the pain being shown on the screen, and believe me there are times you will be doing just that.
The film stars two familiar faces who have worked with Kim Jee-woon previously. Lee Byung Hun (if you’re not familiar with Korean films you may know him as Storm Shadow from the G.I Joe movie) and Choi Min-sik, (a very prolific actor, but is best known worldwide for his work in Park Chan-wooks Oldboy). Lee plays a Kim Soo-hyeon, a political bodyguard whose life suddenly falls apart when his wife is sadistically butchered by a School Bus driving serial killer who is played by, of course, Choi Min-sik. Suddenly his mind can only focus one thing, revenge. He not only hunts down her killer, he starts to play a sick game with him, a kind of catch and release game that gets increasingly brutal at each turn. He is determined to do more then get revenge for his wife, he wants her killer to be the victim, and suffer as much as she did, and he will stake anything to do so, including the risk of losing himself to the vengeful darkness that has all but consumed him.
Choi Min Sik is disturbingly brilliant as the down-right revolting psychopathic antagonist; his very presence on screen is utterly creepy and can at times really make your skin crawl. It’s one of the best performances of its kind in a long time. That said what really makes his performance so memorable isn’t just how dark and intimidating he can be, but also how vulnerable he suddenly appears as his hunter strikes. As a viewer you might even catch yourself slipping into sympathy territory. Luckily his smug attitude and disgusting presentation does a good job of removing any sorrow you might start to feel.
On the other side of the token we get to see Lee Byung-hun at his absolute best! He does play a similar role that he did in “A Bittersweet Life”, but takes this character many steps further. He is the ultimate bad-ass in this film through and through, and there are times that I can guarantee you will catch yourself getting the urge to smile and cheer as though you just witnessed Superman swooping in a saving a damsel in distress. However it’s not long before his character really does start to slip slowly and slowly into darker territory, and you begin to suspect that he may end up slipping up for the worse, and you just want to tell him to quit while he’s ahead.
As I said before, this film is very violent. However unlike the recent craze of awful “gore porn” that prides itself on nothing but displaying 120 minutes of blood, guts and boobs. The violence in I Saw the Devil is simply a means of enforcing the characters and their motivations. By the simple act of showing our hero’s wife’s brutal demise in graphic detail, we are given instant reinforcement as to how we should be feeling for the main characters. Your sympathy for Lee Byung-hun becomes immediate, and so does your disgust in Choi Min-siks serial killer character. Same can be said for later in the film when you see the brutality that comes out of the many confrontations that happen between the our main players, these evoke feelings that could simply never be felt the same if the violence was kept to a minimum or left entirely off screen. Sometimes, even when it’s pretend, visual representation can speak a thousand words.