I Saw the Devil (2010)

It’s been a while since I dove into a good foreign film and this one has long sat on my Must See list, going back to my days as a film revisor (damn, I STILL miss that job) and having seen a couple 35mm prints of this South Korean serial killer / revenge flick come through the film distribution depot I was working for at the time.

I was intrigued by the images I glimpsed when I was proofing the print before delivery to its booked theatre and that was soon followed up by decent reviews and word of mouth in the cinephile community. But then, Life did what Life does and I Saw the Devil passed me by. Fast forward 10+ years and I’ve FINALLY decided to dust off the Blu Ray that I’d stumbled upon at our local Value Village a couple months back, fishing it from the drawer carrying the various Blu rays and DVD’s that I own…but haven’t gotten around to checking out yet. But that’s going to change, and I intend to start working my way through the handful of titles awaiting my attention…starting with this one.

Taking place in contemporary South Korea, we are first introduced to a brutal serial killer named ‘Kyung-chul’ (Choi Min-sik) posing as a bus driver before he attacks and abducts a young woman stranded at the side of the road on a snowy night. What the killer didn’t know was that she was talking to her fiancé at the time, which will go on to create all kinds of nasty problems later. There is nothing that can be done in time and soon the poor girl’s mutilated remains are discovered. Her grieving fiancé, ‘Kim Soo-hyeon’ (Lee Byung-hun), is a secretive government agent with a shadowy agenda. After setting himself up for his quest of vengeance using unauthorized federal resources, he takes a leave of absence and sets about tracking down the deadly psychopath, employing a variety of brutal methods to locate and punish the scumbag.

So, on a nondescript grey long-weekend Sunday, following a bout of yard-work and shopping, I slipped the disk into my player, grabbed a huge mocha, had a hoot of happy drugs, and grabbed my scribbler and pad.

I hit PLAY.

I got scribbling…

Good creepy intro and a savage first attack. The movie opens with an impressive long shot from inside the killer’s vehicle as he makes his way through rural South Korea at night, during a snow fall, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look like it was real. It got me tense right away, as I hate driving in weather like that. But after we get a sinister introduction to our antagonist, he attacks the woman’s car, then her, with a hammer, striking like a crazed animal. A bit shocking, actually.

Solid and gritty production design. I love grit in movies, that lived-in feeling, and this movie had taken its notes, as it has a very grimy feel, which I loved, despite feeling like I needed a shower when it was done.

It’s already showing its mean streak. First victim. Damn! This one doesn’t hold back and neither does the killer. He favors bashing skulls in and the first one we see took me aback. As did his absolutely coldness to the victims cries just before the coup de gras.

And we’re not skimping on the gore. Hmmm…parts. Dismemberment…this one doesn’t hide what’s going on. Just saying.

This is not a small budget flick. Big search scene. This sequence was impressive simply on the merit of the number of extras and background players, not to mention the slew of realistic-seeming emergency vehicles in a big night setting.

A grim discovery and reveal. Sadly, the search yields the finding of a key body part and the sequence is genuinely unsettling, reflected onscreen by an unravelling of police procedure and the overzealousness of the ghoulish press.

Some really nice cinematography. Consistently, the framing and blocking on numerous compositions was terrific, with nice balancing of rich colors and thick shadows.

Definitely a dose of melo-drama tossed in. The first Act is definitely marred by a bit of soap-opera level displays of over-emotion, but luckily it gets clearly replaced in Act Two, going from dripping man-tears to dripping man-blood quickly.

Oh shit! Punisher mode! To get started, ‘Soo-hyeon’ gets a list of likely suspects and starts working his way through them, ‘Frank Castle’-like; cold, methodical and cruel.

Fuck! Crescent wrench to the dink! You read that correctly. At one point, during one of ‘Soo-hyeon’s brutally efficient interrogation / torture sessions, we are treated to a close-up of a scum-bags nuts being pounded into Oblivion through a pair of boxers, by a plumber-sized crescent wrench. Be warned – I Saw the Devil does NOT look away.

He actually hit that dude! Car vs motorbike. Some of the stunts in this movie look friggin dangerous and painful, and this was no different. We see, from the backseat of a car, as ‘Soo-hyeon’ smokes one of his targets with the front end of his car…and it looks like they just hit the stuntman and sent him sprawling. It was an impressive stunt and it made me laugh in amazement when it happened.

Stupid chick! You fell for it! Another victim…another set of ignored instincts. Once you’ve said “No”…keep saying it!

The violence is unflinching. Yep. Wears its ‘R-rating’ proudly.

This piece of shit deserves to die badly. Attempted rape scene…of a minor! Gross. This was grim, and as a scene…NEARLY went too far but thankfully, the piece of shit perp ‘Kyung-chul’ got served a serious beat-down, one of several, before he could finish.

Awesome fight scene, kinetic and nasty. There’s a John Wick vibe to the propulsive nature of the surprising number of down n dirty fight scenes that break out, and that was just fine with me.

Hunter becomes hunted? The tables turn and the tormentor becomes the tormented, with ‘Soo-hyeon’ using his various skills to keep the fight going at ‘Kyung-chul’, always brutal but not deadly…yet. Like a cat with a very wily and fucked-in-the-head mouse.

Holy shit! Crazy knife attack! 360 cam. During an escape, ‘Kyung-chul’ finds himself in a taxi with two shady guys, who he promptly attacks with a knife in a slick and super-bloody 360 degree tracking shot that spins wildly around the still driving car as the slaughter plays out.

ANOTHER brutal fight! More bloody fisticuffs ensue.

Yikes! Achilles tendon! A blade. A heel. You get the point. Or is it the blade?

Cannibalism? The next logical step, I suppose. In a movie this fucked up, I guess having the ‘long-pig’ element rear its ugly, disgusting head only seems fitting.

Great stunt-work! The action and stunts are surprisingly brutal and creative through-out the 2 hour and 24 minute run-time.

Lots of broken skulls in this flick. More people should be dead. Yeah, this was a bit weird. Many people get their skulls bashed in with a variety of blunt weapons – multiple hard strikes, splatting and pooling blood etc, but more than once, someone who should DEFINITELY be dead…is not. *shrugs* I just went with it.

THAT was a ‘David Mills’ pregnancy reveal moment. Se7en (1995) is one of my favorite ever serial killer flicks and it features an absolute gut-kick of a scene at the end where Brad Pitt’s ‘Detective David Mills’ learns for the first time, from mastermind psychopath ‘John Doe’ (Kevin Spacey), that his most-likely doomed wife ‘Tracy’ (Gwyneth Paltrow) was / is pregnant with their first child. Something similar happens here.  

Digging through shit…cuz why not. This movie has everything else, so…! ‘Kyung-chul’ roots around in his own shit…in a urinal…in close-up…to find a tracking device he passes. Pretty damn disgusting.

Aagghh! Lower jaw! Someone deserving nearly has his lower jaw torn clean off his face during a fight. Again, this movie does NOT look away!

Aagghh! Through the cheek! A cheek. A knife blade. A through-and-through. Yuck.

Torture porn wish fulfillment vs psycho killers. That does kind of sum this movie up, as themes go. It’s taking the fight to the psycho’s undoubtedly out there in our world, plotting or committing their terrible, terrifying crimes. We want / need to see sick assholes like that cornered, tortured and killed, and this flick ticks that box off nicely. I know that’s not a PC point of view, but on a base level…it’s an instinct everyone can, at least, understand.

Wow! What a fucked-up ending! Everybody’s a monster! It’s a gruesome, deserved death that brings things to a close, but the way it plays out is far nastier than it needed to be, especially where ‘collateral’ damage is concerned. It’s followed up with what I perceived to be ‘Soo-hyeon’s realization that in harshly punishing the monsters…he became one himself. Given the relentlessly bleak tone of this movie, the final shot, of ‘Soo-hyeon’ breaking down in the street as he stumbles away from the scene of his last bloody act of vengeance, felt right in place, just before we crash-cut to black. Very fitting.

For the most part, I Saw the Devil worked for me. I was in the right mood for this kind of flick and it served me well. But…all is not perfect. Looking past some of the cheesy melo-drama of Act One, the biggest complaint that comes to mind is the near 2 and a half hour run-time, as I did find that some of Act Two meandered and could’ve benefited from a tightening of the pace. Plus, a story of vengeance of this kind, really doesn’t need to be much more than 2 hours and change, if that.

But those nit-picks aside, I did get, more or less, what I hoped I would get (along with some jaw-droppingly unexpected moments too) from this South Korean entry into the expansive serial killer / revenge genre. It’s well-directed and looks great, with a solid grasp of its themes and a tight embrace of the inherent nastiness at the heart of the narrative. The actions scenes are exciting and brutal, and the sequences of gore are unapologetic in their effectiveness, which only serves to up the stakes for everyone involved. If you’re a fan of foreign films, particularly the cinema of Asia, and appreciate a well-crafted thriller, notably of the serial killer sub-genre, then you will be well-served giving I Saw the Devil a shot.

It’s got shit that’ll stick with ya, long after the credits roll. Whether or not that’s a good thing, depends entirely on YOU.


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