“Revenge is for the movies.” This line, uttered by one of the characters near the midpoint of the film encapsulates the entire movie. It manages to divert your focus to the frame surrounding the story and effectively remind you that, yes, this is a movie. This is a movie about revenge.
I Saw the Devil
Director: Kim Ji-Woon
Written by: Park Hoon-jung
Running time: 144 minutes
Opening in a snowstorm, the scene is set for what will inevitably be a downward spiral of violence and trauma. A happy young couple, Joo-yun, and Soo-Hyun, separated by Soo-Hyun’s demanding work (as a secret service style agent of course) are on the phone, the wife to be in her van, stuck off road, and the husband at a hotel with his latest assignment. Joo-yun is of course later approached by a suspicious looking older man who is very eager to help her out of her situation…
Like much of the movie, it the opening does an effective job of setting up the stakes. We understand the relationship between Soo-Hyun and Joo-yun though their brief conversation, but ultimately we are left with nothing but broad strokes of each respective character. The woman is bright eyed and beautiful, and the man loving, sensitive, and strong. It’s not important of course, at least as far as the film is concerned. It’s the events that follow that we’re interested in.
The fallout of that night quickly spreads the next morning, when a young boy finds body parts, inciting a media fiasco and alerting both the husband and her father (a former police chief) to her murder. This crushes the two, both who are strong male figures in positions of authority and power, who were of course helpless to save her. Soo-Hyun, composed on the outside, but devastated on the inside, swears to take revenge on the killer, and pay him back with the pain he caused Joo-yun.
From here the movie escalates into what resembles 2008’s kidnapping film, Taken. Soo-Hyun tracks down and interrogates potential subjects until he finally finds the location of Kyung-chul, the killer of his wife. A brutal showdown occurs between the two after Soo-Hyun confronts Kyung-chul in the midst of another attack, and Soo-Hyun leaves him crippled and passed out in a ditch. The story is far from over, however, as Soo-Hyun implants a GPS microphone device in him and repeatedly releases him in order to again track him down and maim him, despite the increasing collateral damage. This culminates in a dizzying race against time, and a cathartic final scene.
Like the aforementioned Taken, the film manages to be well paced (perhaps not as slickly paced as Taken), and despite a bit of overuse of the ubiquitous blue and orange color correction in some scenes, is beautifully composed with fantastically choreographed action scenes and violence. Its shortcomings then are within the characters. While Lee Byung-hun gives a commendable performance portraying Soo-Hyun, as well as generally looking attractive, Choi Min-sik steals the show as Kyung-chul, as seems to be the rule for thrillers of this nature. Soo-Hyun is most interesting in his moments of weakness, where his cool and detached demeanor give way to the pain of his loss. Likewise, Kyung-chul is best in his moments of intimidation both against his victims and those trying to stop him.
The characters never reach the apex of characterization required for the film to work completely. The most memorable villains are driven by some strong internal motivation, which shapes the violence they inflict upon others. Concurrently, strong protagonists need to have a sense of frailty, vulnerability and character flaws underneath their strength (hence the “final girl” trope). Kyung-chul instead seems to be motivated by nothing but the fact that he is “a bad guy”. While it is made obvious that he is a strong desire for young women, the motivation seems to waver in a few places, and at times his actions feels a bit incongruous with that desire. Soo-Hyun does give way in a few places and reveals his more emotional side, but for the most part he’s plagued with an overarching sense of “action hero cool” that deadens the impact of it.
I Saw the Devil serves up some vicious psychological drama, as well as some bouts of drawn out tension and violent releases. The structured repetition of violence ends up holding it down instead of providing a stronger foundation at times, and the broad strokes of characters deaden the impact and empathy present in much of the movie. It’s artfully directed, beautifully shot, and decently paced, but far from the complete revenge promised.