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Original Title:
Akmareul boatda

South Korea 2010

Thriller, Drama

Kim Ji-woon

Lee Byung-hun
Choi Min-sik
Jeon Gook-hwan
Jeon Ho-jin
Oh San-ha
Kim Yoon-seo

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I Saw the Devil

Story: Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) works for the Korean secret service and is notified one day of his girlfriend's murder. Being a broken man he aims for nothing else but having his revenge. With the help of the father of his deceased girlfriend Soo-hyeon can track down a handful of suspects. His methods of interrogation may not be legal, but he eventually gets the information he needs and confronts the killer of his girlfriend, Jang Gyeong-cheol (Choi Min-sik). However, for Soo-hyeon it's not enough to hand him over to the police, he is out for vengeance. After he has taken the initial pressure of his anger off himself he sets the serial killer Gyeong-cheol free again, although not without making him swallow a GPS transmitter. Soo-hyeon follows the killer at every turn and carries out his revenge in small doses. Still, every time he does he sets the killer free again. Eventually, Soo-hyeon's game of revenge arouses the interest of Gyeong-cheol who decides to make the game follow his own set of rules again. A deadly chase between the two begins which leads Soo-hyeon into the abyss of the human mind.

Review: "I saw the Devil" has already caused quite a stir prior to its release. The enormous explicit depiction of violence has got some Korean critics outraged, but then again the director isn't just anybody but Kim Ji-woon, a man who has earned a lot of respect from most critics. It doesn't matter if it's the horror genre with his "A Tale of Two Sister", his action thriller "A Bittersweet Life" or his western (!) "The Good, the Bad and the Weird", Kim Ji-woon made a name for himself and constantly proved that he can make an extraordinary movie no matter what genre and he always sets the bar higher for his competitors. While directors like Park Chan-wook more or less could only disappoint after his master piece "Oldboy", Kim doesn't get irrated by success, holds on to his special yet diverse style of filmmaking and creates movies that are fascinating, disturbing, entertaining and most of all memorable. "I saw the Devil" is everything but a step backwards in the success story of the director and underlines once more the fact that Kim Ji-woon is the actual number 1 among Korean filmmakers.

The story of the movie might not necessarily sound original. Yes, we strongly feel reminded of Park Chan-wook's revenge trilogy whereas the fact that there is explicit depiction of violence and Choi Min-sik is once again playing a sicko serial killer point to "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance". Nonetheless, as in his former movies Kim manages to bestow a touch of profoundness on his work, something like a quiet tone underlying everything and making us think about the events on screen. To what extent does revenge destroy a person, where exactly lies the thin line between good and evil, at what point do you become a monster and under what circumstances is the audience willing to have sympathy with the protagonist? Apparently, there aren't few circumstances. In fact, the ending comes a bit surprising. As an onlooker we have a lot more sadistic imagination of what should be done. This is especially terrifying and thus it is legitimate to ask if Kim Ji-woon actually wanted to steer us into this dilemma? And how did he manage to do so? Did he want to make our natural sympathy for every human being go numb by the implementation of horrifying explicit depiction of violence and is this where he wanted to lead us? At the end it becomes obvious that the line of what's a monster and what's not isn't easy to draw, especially since we don't see Soo-hyeon as such, although it actually would be appropriate to do so under an objective angle.

Soo-hyeon isn't just anybody. He is a well trained agent and therefore it's a pleasure to see how the movie's monsters don't stand a chance against him in a direct hand-to-hand combat. During those moments we are sitting at the edge of our seat, as we can feel his suffering very well and because he saves some individuals directly from the assaults of Gyeong-cheol. Others, however, only get in danger because he didn't bring the killer down when he had the chance in the first place but instead wants to savour his revenge. Whether this form of vigilante justice is morally condemnable or not is not a question the movie asks directly, though. This is the reason why "I saw the Devil" works so well in general, because it doesn't throw obvious questions at you, but instead insinuates them on a subtle level.
Director Kim's favourite actor Lee Byung-hun delivers a good performance as does Choi Min-sik. However, it has to be criticized that both characters remain surprisingly two-dimensional the whole movie through. We know almost nothing about their personalities or their life and they also in no way develop in the course of the film. It is even astonishing how little this downside effectively harms the film.

"I saw the Devil" shows its full strength when it comes to the atmosphere that Kim Ji-woon knows to create in an inimitable fashion. The dark and brutal world Kim draws is loosened up by a few decent humorous moments, e.g. when Gyeong-cheol is given a lift by a taxi driver who turns out to be a robber and murderer himself. The world the film plays in is full of monsters and the bloody bursts of violence from them can be quite disturbing. Director Kim stops at nothing. Be it steel pipes coming down on skulls in distressingly realistic pictures, a small knife causing real blood fountains or dismembered bodies on the screen, as a viewer you oftentimes feel queasy. Even though the thriller isn't aiming at winning over the kind of audience that for whatever reasons likes this kind of gruesomeness but instead puts this violence to use for developing its story and atmosphere "I saw the Devil" surely isn't for the faint of heart! How much Kim works with this kind of uncensored pictures, there are also a few sex scenes as a kind of counter balance btw., maybe is shown best in an at first glance inconsiderable scene. When Gyeong-cheol is looking for something in his excrement director Kim violates a golden moviemaking rule and actually shows how the killer scrabbles about in the toilet...

Apart from the breathtaking violence "I saw the Devil" most of all stands out because of its fantastic directing. Sometimes Kim captures his pictures with a slightly shaky camera at others the camera jumps out of a window right after Soo-hyeon and again on other occasions there are some serene still shots. In any case there is always apparent the distinguishable style of Kim Ji-woon. And this style also shows through in a few wonderful sets. There is the greenhouse or the house of Gyeong-cheol's friend, which reminds us of "A Tale of Two Sisters" or simply a dark fairy tale with its extraordinary wallpaper patterns and wood paneling. Adding to the tense atmosphere is a nice soundtrack so that the rather long 155 minutes don't stand out in a negative way at all.
"I saw the Devil" is captivating and mesmerizing. The level of brutality makes the viewer groan in pain uncontrallably but is serving the film so that cutting them out like Korean officials demanded probably would have taken a lot from the movie's heavy impact on the audience. Qualitywise "I saw the Devil" easily beats "The Chaser" and therefore isn't that far behind "Oldboy". Kim Ji-woon proves with this disturbing thriller that he can give a well-known revenge plot his own special note and that this makes him an outstanding director. Impressive!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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