It begins like a late-’90s slasher movie with the brutal murder of a young woman, soon takes a deeply disturbing turn with graphic violence to rival torture porn, and when it finally ends two and a half hours later, it leaves you physically and emotionally drained. Despite all the blood and gore, though, Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil has little to do with the Saw and Hostel franchises and their numerous ripoffs; its violence is never gratuitous, and isn’t meant to thrill the viewers (though of course the way these things work means that a viewer with a high level of tolerance for highly realistic-looking bloodshed might still find it exciting). What Kim’s latest is instead is a brilliant and spectacularly compelling questioning of cinematic violence and of the way we, as viewers, interact with it. In that sense it’s not entirely unlike Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, if Funny Games wasn’t obnoxiously preachy and actually worked as a movie.
The film takes the classic form of a duel between two men. Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, known to western audiences for playing Oh Dae-su in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy) is a vicious killer and rapist who moonlights as a school minivan driver, and vice versa. One of his victims turns out to be the fiancée of one Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun, who starred in Kim Jee-woon’s two previous films, The Good, the Bad, the Weird and A Bittersweet Life), a secret service agent who vows to avenge his lover’s life and to make her killer suffer even worse torments than she did. He then proceeds to track down Kyung-chul but, instead of killing him outright, leaves him alive but maimed. Then he tracks him down again and maims him some more, and again, in increasingly gory and disturbing ways, until things eventually start spinning out of his control.
What’s most surprising about I Saw the Devil is perhaps how well it works as a thriller, which makes its underlying argument about violence at once easier to miss or ignore and all the more effective for those willing to engage with it. Though the film is close to two and a half hours long, the tension remains such throughout that it never risks losing you. There are several brilliant set pieces, such as the first encounter between Kyung-chul and Soo-hyeon, which takes place in an abandoned greenhouse and pays homage to martial arts films with an intense fight scene, or an extended sequence in a mansion that has the two protagonists repeatedly switch roles as hunter and prey. What truly makes the film work, though, is its emotional weight. It goes to some very dark places, starting with Soo-hyeon’s despair after his girlfriend’s death, then to uncontained and destructive rage, and ultimately leaves you with an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. Though it’s surprisingly funny at times (Kyung-chul’s habit of referring to absolutely everyone as “crazy fucks” is brilliant hypocritical humor, all the more so because he’s so often right), it’s an overwhelmingly grim and gloomy picture, if a beautifully shot one (night scenes are particularly gorgeous, all blacks and grays and blues).
And then there’s the violence. I Saw the Devil is extremely graphic and quite gory, but never in a way that would make it cartoony or comical. Its violence is above all deeply disturbing, because of just how realistic it looks, and because of how utterly relentless Kim is in is depiction of it. Blood flows freely in extended close-ups as Soo-hyeon breaks Kyung-chul’s wrist or slashes his Achilles tendon with a scalpel, the camera never wavering or cutting away. To say that it’s often hard to stomach would be an understatement (the aforementioned scalpel scene is perhaps the single most physically painful to watch in the entire movie). But however bloody it gets, this violence, as I’ve mentioned, is never gratuitous. Kim and screenwriter Park Hoon-jung know exactly what they’re doing, and use it to turn I Saw the Devil into a brutal deconstruction of the revenge movie genre and of the way we as audiences approach it.
Revenge movies have always been most problematic, from an ideological point of view, because of the way they present violence as morally justified. A heinous crime is committed, its perpetrator somehow escapes justice, and it is up to one individual to act in the place of a flawed or failing system and exact proper retribution. Sometimes these days the morality of vigilante justice is discussed, but in the end we’re still expected to root for the hero (or morally ambiguous antihero) and to feel a sense of closure when the bad guy finally bites it.
I Saw the Devil plays with that framework, and for a while teases us with the idea that it will conform to it. The prologue establishes Kyung-chul as a complete monster, a man who assaults and abducts a young woman, then tortures and kills her even after learning that she is pregnant. He kills several other people over the course of the film, and not one attempt is made to make him more human or to explain why he is that way; much like Halloween’s Michael Myers, he’s a single-minded, almost supernatural force of evil with no redeeming features whatsoever. In other words, he’s as close to a perfect revenge movie villain as you’re ever likely to see. Choi Min-sik delivers perhaps his most impressive performance to date, imbuing Kyung-chul with all his intensity and charisma to make him an even fiercer and more terrifying figure. With such a thoroughly evil villain, moral ambiguity does not seem to be the order of the day.
But then comes the violence. By making it so extreme and explicit, Kim forces his audience to acknowledge it and, hopefully, to engage with it in a meaningful way. We may instinctively side with the protagonist in revenge movies, but Soo-hyeon’s actions are such that we cannot but consider whether they are truly morally justified. There’s a strong “he who fights monsters” vibe about the film, and a minor character even sums up the plot as “the birth of a monster” (and then, because he’s completely insane, he adds that he finds that very funny); however, in spite of the atrocious acts Soo-hyeon commits, he remains surprisingly close to an archetypal revenge movie hero.
Much like the film’s first part makes it clear that Kyung-chul is despicably evil and beyond all redemption, it presents Soo-hyeon as a man crushed by his fiancée’s murder and makes him extremely sympathetic and relatable (as much as I hate the word); most importantly, at no point in the movie does Soo-hyeon directly hurt innocents, which is usually what indicates that a hero or antihero has finally gone off the deep end (I’m reminded of the recent and awful Law Abiding Citizen, whose moral stance seemed to be that vigilante justice is perfectly fine, unless you snap and start killing innocent people). There’s even a play on the two leads’ looks: as Kyung-chul accumulates fearsome scars and becomes more and more visibly affected by his numerous wounds, limping through the second half of the film, Soo-hyeon remains ridiculously handsome throughout, his smooth, angelic features forever unblemished. Kim teases us, both thematically and visually, with the idea of a fight between good and evil, which extends the questioning of cinematic violence introduced by Soo-hyeon’s actions to the entire revenge movie genre (rather than limiting it to ultra-violent films like I Saw the Devil) and, arguably, to cinema in general.
Which brings me back to my earlier mention of Funny Games. As much as I love some of Haneke’s other films, I’ve always considered Funny Games a failure partly because it’s barely a movie to begin with (more than the lack of plot or actual characters, what truly kills it is the impossibility of any emotional involvement on the viewer’s part), partly because it constantly taunts and insults its audience just as it is trying to make a point. It isn’t a film, it’s a badly thought-out pamphlet. I Saw the Devil masterfully avoids both traps; it’s engrossing, beautiful (I cannot emphasize enough just how great the cinematography is), and emotionally devastating, and it never feels the need to look down on its audience. The film’s graphic violence is a blunt weapon, but Kim uses it with surprising subtlety. In the end, the question implied by the title is left unanswered, and we are left to decide for ourselves who, of the complete monster and the man who willingly stoops to his level, is worse. The most troubling idea, though, is that the devil of the title could very well be neither Kyung-chul nor Soo-hyeon, but rather all of us.