I Saw the DevilReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/20/11 16:29:30
A colleague of mine described Kim Ji-woon's last film, "The Good, the Bad, the Weird", as an attempt to make an action movie with nothing but the Good Parts. Kim brings that same attitude to "I Saw the Devil" - it's like a serial killer movie that starts at the moment when others kick into high gear, and then keeps going for nearly two and a half hours. It's dark, bloody, and intense, not for the weak of heart (or stomach), but electric nearly all the way through.We open with Jang Ju-yeon (Oh San-ha) in a car with a flat tire, on the phone to her fiance Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), an officer in the Korean equivalent of the Secret Service. A tow truck is on the way, but a seemingly helpful man offers his assistance. He is Jang Kyeong-chul (Choi Min-sik), and he is a serial killer. In the aftermath, Soo-hyeon tells his boss that he only needs a couple weeks off from work, but instead of grieving, he intends to hunt Ju-yeon's killer down, but not just to kill him - Soo-yeon means to terrorize Kyeong-chul the way he terrorized his victims.
This is a bad idea, and to director Kim's and writer Park Hoon-jung's credit, it's obvious as a bad idea from the start, but it's also seductive and the sort of thing that fits Soo-hyeon's character more as we see more of him (and seeing him demonstrate his skills as the movie goes on reinforces our hopes that he can pull this off even as the situation threatens to spin out of control). Without waxing overly philosophical, the story ponders a bit about the psychology of serial killers, and even throws in a side plot that could work as its own movie to push that along. The movie is in post-plot-twist, anything-can-happen mode practically from minute one, without much time for untested righteousness, and the tale is told through action rather than hand-wringing. We don't see Soo-hyeon agonizing over his questionable actions, we just see situations where his thirst for revenge may get innocent people killed.
Those situations make up a string of action pieces that could be the climaxes to other movies, and while they are played for a darker sort of thrill than the action in Kim's action/adventures (A Bittersweet Life and The Good, the Bad, the Weird), the quality of the execution is just as high. Kim has what seems like an instinctive knowledge for how to make each of these sequences work - he knows just how many seconds we have to wonder if if Soo-hyeon will arrive in time to maximize suspense, gets a lot of good work out of a good action team, and always seems to choose right between ending a scene with a jolt or a slow burn to get in order to get the audience to move just a little closer to the edge of their collective seat. It's not always pleasant - the gruesome, bloody violence got the movie the Korean equivalent of an NC-17 rating until it was cut, and what's left is still nasty - but it's certainly hard to look away.
That goes for the two main performances, as well. Lee Byung-hun is, as per usual, magnetic as Soo-hyeon; with just a scant couple of minutes to establish a baseline, we get that he's funny and charming before things go to hell, and afterward, there's a palpable feeling of a dark side overpowering his better nature. He's also darn good when things get physical, handling the action scenes well. Of course, he looks the type, and Choi Min-sik really doesn't, but the latter handles his side too. He's also able to make Kyeong-chul a perfectly realized monster, not blase about his evil but not really full of venom until the end, when Soo-hyeon has pushed him to the point of desperation. Though he's horrifying from the start, Choi manages to keep finding another notch during the last act, somehow able to keep pushing his character just a little farther without ever overacting.
The supporting cast is good, too - Jeon Gook-hwan and Kim Yoon-seo are spot-on as Ju-yeon's father and sister, with Jeon getting the scenes of the ex-cop father tacitly condoning Soo-hyeon's actions just right while Kim functions as the movie's conscience (she's also, somewhat uncomfortably, the most prominent female role in a movie where women are overwhelmingly in the role of victim). Also proving memorable is Cho Moo-seong; although his character's presence is a little bit of overkill, he presents us with a character who slides between baby-faced enthusiasm and thoroughly deviant behavior with perfect ease.There's a lot of deviant behavior in "I Saw the Devil", undoubtedly too much for some viewers. If you can handle the blood and mayhem, though, it's a hell of a thriller, bringing the audience into the heart of darkness right alongside Soo-hyeon, never letting up for much more than an instant.
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