What if the final scene of SE7EN ended with Kevin Spacey’s John Doe escaping and Brad Pitt’s character goes on a relentless quest to track him down at all costs and they filmed a movie about that? That pretty much sums up I SAW THE DEVIL. Though that comparison is somewhat simplistic, I think it fits. There were a few scenes in I SAW THE DEVIL that reminded me of SE7EN, but besides that, it’s probably one of the best serial killer films to grace the screen since David Fincher’s masterpiece.
South Korea’s Jee-woon Kim constructs a technically dynamic dance between a monster and a man who can’t help but become one. Byung-hun Lee plays Kim Soo-hyeon, a young government agent whose fiancée is the latest victim of a serial killer. Broken and fueled by revenge, he vows to track down the killer and destroy him utterly and completely. Kyung-Chul (played by OLDBOY’s Min-sik Choi) is the serial killer and he plays one of the best villains I’ve seen on film in years. Jee-woon Kim allows us to get to know both characters and fills them with details and scenes where we both sympathize and understand them. At the same time, they are both doing things that should make us hate them. Jee-woon Kim makes this an uneasy film to watch because of the moral ambiguity of the hero and the human flaws of the villain.
He also fills this film with violence and gore of the highest caliber. But this isn’t a gorefest highlighting the red stuff. The carnage these two inflict upon one another serves a purpose and that purpose is to show how easy it is for someone to lose what makes one human and become capable of despicable acts of violence. And believe me, these two characters tear each other apart.
I could go on about the awesomeness of the cab scene or the garden scene or the hotel scene, but I don’t want to ruin a bit of this film for folks. I will say that it is a tense and gritty drama that hits you where it hurts while satiating one’s hunger for action and horror. The complete arc Min-sik Choi’s character Kyung-Chul goes through is amazing to watch. Though both lead actors are strong, Chul’s story is the most fascinating as he goes from hunter, to befuddled prey, and then back to manipulating hunter once again while Byung-hun Lee’s Kim Soo-hyeon character is a cold tool of revenge for most of the film. Seeing Chul realize that, despite the horrific torture Soo-hyeon is inflicting on him, this game of cat and mouse is actually fun to him, is a revelation that makes this film shine above all others of its kind. Then again, Byung-hun Lee saves his character from becoming completely unlikable by reminding the audience that he has lost everything. Lee does a great job of convey pain in his cold stare, even when he isn’t speaking. Choi, on the other hand is a force of nature; relying on unstoppable animal impulse swayed by no rules. Seeing these two extremes bash into each other is a thing of gory, action-packed beauty.
Holy shit, do they kick the snot out of each other!
Though the events that appear at about the hour twenty mark are somewhat distractingly similar to SE7EN and the beating these two characters enact upon each other would have killed a normal man a thousand times over, it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a phenomenal dramatic, technical, and kinetic work of cinema. Though it may strike the ire of purists, it is a film that screams for American adaptation. Even while watching it, I could see Joseph Gordon Levitt playing the young agent out for revenge against a monstrous Michael Shannon. As it is, I SAW THE DEVIL is an instant classic with scenes you will be talking about long after the film is over and performances that burn into your soul with power and complexity. I can’t wait until this gory and intense masterpiece hits the states for a wider audience to see. Trust me, it’s worth the wait.