I Saw the Devil Review
Revenge, it seems, is woven into our very fabric as humans. Not only is evidence of this raw instinct embedded within certain religious doctrines, such as the stark reciprocal justice of ‘an eye for an eye’, but there is also an unrelenting mass of popular culture which focuses on the often challenging and uncomfortable reality of our desire to settle scores, to ‘right’ perceived wrongs, and to inflict the same (or greater) level of pain upon the very perpetrators who have caused our own misery.
Many films with such a theme seek simply to access our primal instinct of revenge, presenting an initial crime to provoke our outrage, anger, and pain, and in so doing relieve us of any subsequent guilt as we move towards righteous satisfaction, a counterbalance to help us enjoy whatever methods of vengeance are delivered for our clean consciences. Such examples today are in rich supply, yet a straightforward crime/revenge tale can often leave a nasty taste, especially where the avenger revels in unbounded glee at their delivery of reciprocal justice.
Where revenge-themed movies extend the premise beyond a linear, one-dimensional crime/revenge scenario and present challenging and thought-provoking questions, the end result, whilst often more emotionally painful, is usually much more fulfilling. Many such examples emanate from the cultural epicentre of impossibly stylish, thought-provoking revenge pictures, South Korea; so can Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil contribute anything new to his country’s impressive back catalogue of vengeance masterpieces?
Kim’s delivery certainly elevates his extraordinary picture to a position alongside other high quality examples of the genre (including some of his own), and the opening scene is an engaging, touching, and horrifying combination of tenderness and brutality. As the pregnant and pretty Ju-yeon sits in her broken down car in the darkness with the pure, clean, white snow continuing to fall heavily, her husband Soo-hyun works late as a police secret agent, and tries to reassure her over the phone whilst the pick-up truck is travelling to her aid. He moves away from his colleagues to gently – and briefly - sing to her, whilst she is approached by a stranger in the consuming darkness. The stranger is Kyung-chul, a sadistic murderer, and as he inevitably plies his grim trade, the stage is set for Soo-hyun to hunt down the merciless killer and bring him to justice. The problem is that one act of revenge fails to sate the ravenous, vengeful appetite of the devastated Soo-hyun, and as he discovers a modus operandi for reliving bloody vengeance against the criminal again and again, he plunges ever deeper into the murky depths inhabited by the truly evil serial killer he so despises.
Some may feel that this all sounds a little derivative, yet as Kyung-chul and Soo-hyun’s bloody game of brutality escalates, we come to realise that Kim is presenting some challenging questions around the nature of revenge. Soo-hyun promises his departed wife that he will deliver justice for her, yet as his extended punishment of Kyung-chul becomes ever more obsessive and blood-thirsty, we question more closely Soo-hyun’s motives, and the very same desires which we are subject to. Is Soo-hyun continuing to pursue and punish Kyung-chul as a route to reciprocal justice, or has he come to perversely enjoy the brutality, sinking ever closer to the depraved level of Kyung-chul’s existence? And, disturbingly, has the cold and efficient Soo-hyun even retained any of the humanity which was so apparent in the earlier stages of the film? Certainly, as he repeatedly rescues female victims from the clutches of the evil sadist, he demonstrates scant consideration for the victims themselves (or, for that matter, Ju-yeon’s grieving family), with his primary focus fixated on the target of his violent game.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Kim’s drama is the questions it provokes surrounding the avenger's burning need to emerge as the 'winner'; as Soo-hyun’s endless hunt for Kyung-chul escalates into an all-consuming monster, Kyung-chul drags him down into the dubious glories of his own hell, effectively engaging him in a competition that proves both characters sadistic and bloodthirsty. Is Soo-hyun really seeking justice for Ju-yeon any more, or at some subliminal level has he begun to revel in the thrill of tracking, tormenting, and torturing his prey?
Kim’s depiction of the drama is unfalteringly beautiful, whether capturing the simple beauty of nature, or the grimy dark colours of violence, and frequently such simple beauty and ugly bloodshed is portrayed in an almost symbiotic embrace. Each scene is delivered with care and precision, and Mowg’s score provides a similarly elegant balance of beauty and murkiness to underpin the visuals perfectly. With proceedings running for way past the two hour mark, there is a good deal of pressure on the actors to carry the story forward against such an impressive visual and aural backdrop, yet they don’t disappoint. The archetypal South Korean bad guy, Min-sik Choi (back here after a four year hiatus following his protest against the South Korean government’s decision to cut quotas protecting domestically produced films) is utterly convincing as the perverted, sadistic serial killer who owns not one glimmer of humanity, and his on-screen rival, Byung-hun Lee, is similarly outstanding as the equally deadly yet coldly composed police agent. Despite a relatively short tenure on-screen, San-ha Oh is touching and delicate as Soo-hyun’s fated wife, with Yoon-seo Kim continuing in similar vein as her grieving sister, and Jeon Kuk-hwan plays a shattered father and broken police chief with heart-wrenching authenticity, rounding up an impressive set of performances from all lead actors.
Despite a delivery of devastating impact, Kim’s vengeance piece isn’t entirely flawless. Even with the unrelenting pace, energy, and imagination of this highly visceral picture, the two hour plus running time means that the extreme tension and bloody violence is almost overwhelming at times, though the fact that the movie largely avoids any form of slump throughout is significant praise. Additionally, as the cat and mouse chase rolls on and on, each subsequent incident feels slightly more tenuous than the last. Yet, these are small gripes, and with a movie prepared with such intricacy and care, it’s difficult to identify much else by way of complaint.
At one point, Kyung-chul seeks sanctuary with one of his old criminal buddies, who listens with glee to the story of his unfolding battle with the obsessive Soo-hyun, remarking “Advent of a monster. How interesting!”. Against this moral backdrop, Kim presents a stylish, beautifully shot, and devastatingly brutal picture which, despite its extended running time, constantly denies you of breath, and proves an exhilarating and intelligent journey into the murky depths of revenge.
Optimum Home Entertainment preside over a high quality release once again, presenting this region B encoded disc using the native aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p presentation means that the resulting definition is excellent, with an incredible level of fine detail doing full justice to the carefully captured images. The wider shots look particularly impressive, and the reproduction of what is an often very colourful film means that the requisite impact is delivered. Kim takes full advantage of strong colours, combining a filter of cold night blues with the pure white of the driving snow, and splashing swathes of vivid red across this cool canvas.
The MPEG-4 AVC encoding delivers a clean and consistent presentation, though there is one moment at around the 36 minute mark where the image develops an unusual amount of graininess. During the length of the film, it’s a short lived moment of degradation, and presents more of an oddity than any substantial problem.
Subtitles are included in English, and are clear, well proportioned, and especially well placed so as not to disturb the beauty of the imagery.
For those who are interested in such things, the total file size for the movie itself is a whopping 40.6Gb; understandable, perhaps, given the length of the film. With the remainder of the files, the total disc size is 42.9Gb.
The menu is easily navigable, and the imagery and audio – a still of the two lead’s faces slowly filling with blood as the beautiful piano soundtrack plays – is typically stylish and careful.
Audio is available in 2.0 LPCM, or 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio. Needless to say, the aural delivery is consistently clear and free from distortion, with dialogue remaining distinct throughout. The sound is reproduced strongly, with audio shooting across the sound stage during the action sections.
It’s the musical elements of the audio delivery which demonstrate the strength of this presentation. Mowg’s touching piano sections are clear despite their delicacy, yet the more threatening music is equally well delivered. The murky bass line which throbs menacingly whilst Kyung-chul drives the school bus back to his home – with an extra passenger – is reproduced with suitable depth and impact.
Though the extras aren’t especially long nor polished, the two main featurettes here provide a decent accompaniment to the main feature, and the lack of any particular format means that the content shines through.
First up is an Interviews piece, running for just over nineteen minutes. The first 12 minutes of the piece feature an informal yet thoroughly enjoyable interview with director Jee-woon Kim. The remainder of the piece features interviews with Min-sik Choi and Byung-hun Lee, who are both engaging and present their own particular views on the film.
A Making of featurette runs for 18 minutes, and shares a similarly unspoilt format with a collection of behind the scenes shots. This segment is equally enjoyable.
A Teaser Trailer and TV Spot finish off the rather modest but warmly welcomed extras set.
Jee-woon Kim’s revenge movie imparts an immediate sense of dread, and many scenes are extremely violent, deeply unpleasant, and frequently distressing. Yet despite its extended running time, the lead performances and Kim’s careful, precise delivery ensure a challenging and exhilarating experience, and for those brave enough to experience I Saw the Devil, this high quality release will prove a rich reward. Essential.