I Saw The Devil is a 2010 South Korean thriller which received an unbelievable amount of hype for three major reasons: first, it was directed by one of Korea’s finest action-thriller directors, Kim Jee-Woon (The Good, The Bad, The Weird; A Bittersweet Life). The last two reasons that fans were beside themselves with excitement for I Saw The Devil have to do with the cast. This movie marks the first time that two of Korea’s biggest lead actors – Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy) and Lee Byung-Hun (The Good, The Bad, The Weird; A Bittersweet Life) – have been in a film together, not to mention that they would literally be going toe-to-toe for nearly 2 1/2 hours on screen. I suppose it also didn’t hurt the hype machine for I Saw The Devil that it was initially banned from public theaters in Korea for delivering too highly on its promise of edgy, violent thrills. Nonetheless, despite all the rave reviews I read while it was on the festival circuit, I waited until I Saw The Devil made its way to Netflix’ “Watch Instantly” page to take the time to view and review it.
To summarize the plot without giving too much away, I Saw The Devil is a story about a sadistic serial killer (Choi Min-Sik) whose latest victim happens to be the daughter of the chief of police, and the fiancee of a secret agent (Lee Byung-Hun) whose taste for revenge brings out his inner sadist. Pretty simple.
As for my feelings, I cannot deny that this film was well cast and well directed (especially the action-heavy scenes, which Kim Jee-Woon excels at), but it was definitely not without it’s issues. For starters, I wish that they had taken some time, maybe even through flashbacks, to establish Byung-Hun’s character’s relationship with his fiancee before they rushed to kill her off. I felt that the audience was just sort of told that they loved each other and that her loss is significant, even though I felt almost nothing watching her die (and I’m totally not crazy – I promise). It doesn’t help that Lee Byung-Hun is just so damn stoic through 95% of the film, he’s practically an emotionless droid. I suppose it’s a good thing that Choi Min-Sik is extremely talented at playing over-the-top melodramatic characters, which helps to balance Byung-Hun’s very subtle, almost wooden dramatic performances (though on the rare occasion we see him emote, it never disappoints).
Although it is a minor gripe, I must bring up a laughably melodramatic scene early in the film, where the police force is looking for the body of the fiancee. You see none of the expected order or professionalism from the team – they literally stampede the crime scene as if it were a Rock concert and trip over one-another to get a look at a body part, which they then fumble and drop on the ground while trying to carry it off. It was almost as if this were the first murder to ever happen in Korean history, which I’m fairly certain was not the case.
Moving on, I also found myself scratching my head at how often other unrelated murderers and serial killers kept popping up in this movie. I suppose they had to make things more interesting to draw out the running time and introduce new elements of danger, but really – every other person that either of the main characters run into just happens to be a serial killer. Either that, or there is a whole network of serial killers buddying up all over Seoul, which psychologically, just doesn’t satisfy me. I guess I wouldn’t complain about it so much if it had actually helped to build the tension in the film, or if these other killers had actually done anything more besides distract from the main point, but alas that was not the case. They were dead ends script-wise, and with a running time over two hours, they could have easily been edited out entirely.
The most important thing for a film like this to be successful, is that it has to be thrilling – it has to build crazy amounts of tension, emotion, fear, pain, and excitement, and it has to work all these elements to a satisfying climax. I Saw The Devil was really only semi-successful in this mission. For me, up until about the last half-hour, the tension just wasn’t there the way it should have been. We don’t really get an emotional context for Byung-Hun’s revenge, like I said earlier, and there’s not really much context for Min-Sik’s murders either. I understand that as a serial killer, he does these awful things mostly out of habit and isn’t really driven by any sort of reason, but he just seems so indifferent most of the time that you wonder how long he’s been doing it – and why he hasn’t been caught already. The fact that Byung-Hun plays his part so straight and stoic is a problem too – we see him do more and more terrible things to Min-Sik, and we understand that he is becoming a monster, but we never see it on his face! If he weren’t such a machine – if he let that humanity show more often – we would feel a lot more tension, because a machine is hard to sympathize with. A machine is not risking much. We are led to forgive the actor for being so wooden when it is later revealed that the only way he could persist and continue to face off against the serial killer was by swallowing his emotions, but regardless of the fact that this is a valid excuse, his performance only managed to tone down the tension, which is not the intended effect, I’m sure.
All in all, regardless of how violent and disturbing they attempted to make this film, I was somewhat underwhelmed and disappointed with I Saw The Devil. I wanted to be on the edge of my seat, but no matter how much action and violence was displayed before me, I was almost always on the edge of not caring. Lee Byung-Hun redeems himself in the end, and once Choi Min-Sik decides to care about what’s going on, and not just treat the film’s events as an unfortunate inconvenience, he pulls through with a really dynamic performance as well. The ending of the film packs a great punch, and involves one of the best death traps since Saw. Also, we are left with the sense that revenge is never a neat package that ends with one person getting what they deserve – its effects ripple outwards infinitely, which was communicated effectively here.
Given credit for great performances, a fantastic ending, and a capable eye behind the camera, I Saw The Devil does its best to overcome the mediocrity of its thrills, its poor pacing, and its excess of mis-placed villains, but when everything is weighed out, it falls shy of the hype. 3.5/5.