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In Association with
I Saw The Devil (2010)
Director: Kim Jee-woon

review by Paul Higson
Kim Jee-woon's I Saw The Devil begins with a vehicle in transit, with the driver and passenger seat views, as we are being taken for a ride. Two comma shaped lights high on the windscreen create a pair of malevolent eyes. Snow falls and our driver finds a woman, Ju-yeon (Kim In-seo), stranded in her car. Our chauffeur, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), approaches the woman to casually offer his assistance. She remains in her seat, the Korean answer to the AA having already been called. As the wife of a serving special police agent and daughter of a former police chief she is well educated in caution on lonely roads in the night. Our chauffeur returns to his minibus but his vehicle does not leave. By the time she notices this, he is delivering hammer blows to her vehicle and head until she is unconscious.

Cut to his lair and she is naked and pleading for her life as he taunts her about the cruelties and indignities he is going to submit her to before killing her. "It's going to be easy since your skin is so soft." ... "Please don't kill me." ... "Why?" She explains that she is pregnant. He stares at her blankly then begins to dismember her alive. His implacable nastiness established the film has no need to confirm this in a succession of similar atrocities. Well, not quite. Blood and other unpleasantness will ebb and flow with the film. The remainder is a tale of the novelty revenge, the unusual plans of the grieving husband Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) which he will visit on the killer.

Compartment two in this train of events involves the husband and father-in-law going over police records in an attempt to identify the new serial killer. Four candidates are profiled to be chased down and violently dealt with. It does not matter if it is not the right pervert first or second time out as they have a sense that they will know the right one and go further when they come upon him, and whatever violence delivered upon the wrong suspect is also deserved. This episode is deeply flawed as we have to assume that exactly these four could not be found in their colleagues' investigation, and then it seems that the crimes for which they are being punished were indeed their own, and that the husband is able to do all this during two week's compassionate leave. The snow has also gone but there is a sense that this is more fable than a work of realism.

The killer continues to bludgeon and rape young women until the wronged parties catch up with him. His 'child safe vehicle' is revealed to be a school bus. Alert to the fact that the police have identified him, and are closing in; the last little girl on the journey home misses her stop. Soo-hyun interrupts Kyung-chul before he can rape the little girl but the gimmick here is a catch and release revenge model, of tracking, savage assault and release in order that he can hunt him and hurt him repeatedly.

While Kyung-chul is unconscious Soo-hyun forces a tracking device down his gullet. Following a further couple of beatings the frustrated serial killer takes refuge with a friend and his girl. Another veteran of a terrorist cause he also garnered a taste for sadism and has followed a similar career path as a rapist and murderer. The house they have holed up in belongs to their latest victims and provides an interesting backdrop for a thrilling battle between Soo-hyun and the atrocious triumvirate.

Kyun-chul admits, "I've never had so much fun in my life. It's been a blast," and decides to turn the game around. The serial killer's frustration is eventually overridden by his bemusement as he comes to realise that his earlier murderous action has created a monster in Soo-hyun. Despite his personal mission to gradually destroy Kyun-chul, his failure to kill him permits the monster to continue and perpetuate other crimes in which Soo-hyun becomes his adverse collaborator.

The viewer is subjected to a quandary for in failing to bring Kyung-chul to justice several crimes are averted but others committed. The scales of justice swing erratically as a nurse is unnecessarily molested but his continuing freedom leads to a second pair of psychopaths who are averted from their next kill, and possibly many more. The director toys with the viewer providing us with the options of an innocent girl's molestation or the prevention of a series of torture murders at the hands of the serial killer couple. The proposal is already on the table before the film advances to another stage in which the scales of justice slip back down heavily as Kyun-chul takes a savage and cruel revenge on his pursuers.

This uneasy moral play is the torqueing concept central to this movie, daring the viewer to approve of the mode of revenge but identify with a dilemma that the protagonist is often unforgivably blind to until it is too late. The final set piece is long drawn out and a classic horror movie death played out in front of the serial killer's family. But the intention at this point makes little apparent sense as the killer has to suddenly develop a range of sympathies and feelings which are alien to a psychopath who has disconnected from his family. There is a suggestion that the horror of his death might become seared into his son, marking him for life and creating a murderous next generation. This is a director, however, who does not want for any comfortable solutions but does want to close his picture with every surviving character scarred.

The landscape of the movie is one in which no innocents come out unscathed. They will be dead, abused, injured, tormented and changed irreparably. The enactors of the unpleasantness are legion too, extending to the behaviour of other parties, particularly the ghouls in the press who, at the scene of the discovered body parts of the detective's wife, become a rabble, fighting to get the first grisly photographic shot of the decapitated head. Their pushing and shoving results in her decapitated head falling from the cardboard box in which it is being carried by an amateurish and shaken officer, and rolling across the ground in full witness of the relatives.

The moral ambiguities may buoy the story but the catch and release angle is difficult to ally oneself too. Even if you did have the strength and combat skills to repeatedly overpower the killer, it is a convoluted revenge and it is impossible to root for Soo-hyun the moment that it begins to go wrong. Are we expected to excuse one assault in order to bring a pair of serial killers to heel? No act is permissible, no matter what the outcome. Must one innocent die to save the lives of thousands is answered all the time by the people. There is no evidence that it will make a difference as it does not occur and the circumstances in Kim Jee-woon's film are artificial in the extreme, but low praise indeed to the director for formulating this sinister equation.

The DVD comes with interviews, a trailer, TV spot, and a making-of documentary.

I Saw the Devil

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