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#43. I Saw The Devil - Review

I Saw the Devil banner / poster

I Saw the Devil is Kim Jeewoon’s best attempt at emulating Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy and keeping up with South Korea’s tradition of making excellent revenge pictures. Regrettably Jeewoon misunderstood what made Oldboy so engaging, and instead of having equal parts style and substance, I Saw the Devil unfortunately deflates into an exercise of excessiveness. And yet, this oddly not by-the-numbers genre flick is a total blast, and director Jeewoon’s perhaps knows what his audience craves better than anyone else.

The film’s plot is regular revenge fair. After secret agent Dae-hoon’s (Byung-hun Lee) pregnant girlfriend is kidnapped and murdered by local sociopath Kyunk-Chui (Min-sik Choi), the grieving agent decides to take the law into his own hands. Using all of the knowledge and tools at his disposal, Dae-hoon manages to track Kyunk-Chui down and insert a tracking device inside his body. Having the murderer on a bloody leash, to what depths will Dae-hoon willingly sink in order to exact his revenge?

I Saw the Devil film

With such great set-up, I was disappointed to see the film devolve so quickly into normal torture-porn territory. It seems Jeewoon became more interested in how Dae-hoon would get his revenge then necessarily why. Apparently the film’s original cut was so brutally graphic it could not pass South Korean censors, and I can see why. Having watched an uncut version of the film, it is obvious the director took much joy in bringing such heinous barbarism to the screen. I have confessed to loving horror movies and films interested in a more violent side of human nature, and even I was often gleefully shocked at what I was watching. The majority of the film shows this cat and mouse game between Dae-hoon and Kyunk-Chui, where the agent finds the murderer, severely abuses him, then pays for the hospital bill so he can do it all over again.

The philosophical quandaries at the heart of this film do not seem to be of much importance to the filmmaker. The idea of a man turning into a monster in order to kill another is cliché, and honestly is presented with a take-it or leave-it fashion throughout the final moments of the film. Jeewoon may hope you find some deeper meaning in his film, but he was obviously more concerned with realism. For instance, when Dae-hoon slices Kyunk-Chui’s Achilles’ tendon it looks unbelievable real!

I Saw the Devil film

Unlike Takashi Kitano’s Outrage, which also screened at the Pusan International Film Festival, I Saw the Devil does not play like a creative satire or spoof of the genre. Instead, it feels like an amalgamation of scenes and plot points that have been seen in many of the Tartan Asian Extreme dvd releases of the last decade. Perhaps, when Kyunk-Chui attacks a helpless woman with a hammer the director was only presenting homage to the now classic film Oldboy (2003) (which also stars Min-sik Choi). The brutality is not without cause. Similarly violent films like The Isle (2000), Audition (1999), and the Three Extremes series (2004) were all filmed with extreme, disturbing cinema in mind. Thanks to distribution labels like the previously mentioned Tartan Films and the Weinstein Company owned Dragon Dynasty, western audiences now crave this exotic Asian brand of torture.

Thankfully I Saw the Devil met all of my expectations, at least visually. The film may leave something to be desired in regard to originality and character development, but that is not really why I watch these films. Chi-Yun Shin wrote in her article examining Tartan Films that the distributor has come to “rely on the western audiences’ perception of the East as weird and wonderful, sublime and grotesque” (2). This is true, but with films like I Saw the Devil and Outrage being made, it seems like the Asian directors that helped create the “extreme” genre are now sick of playing the fool. Once a provocateur with stylish films A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and A Bittersweet Life (2005), Jeewoon’s latest offering provides copious amounts of “extreme” and “grotesque,” but not enough of the “weird” and “sublime” that evened out his earlier films.

Still, the heart wants what it wants, and I wanted a perverse Asian extreme film. Jeewoon serves up a brain-dead helping of torture porn, holding the sides of character development, creativity, and plot. I was left with a heaping mound of sadism and despair. Like any good American I gorged until I was full, but now I am wondering if that makes me a fool? 

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