I Saw the Devil Review

Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil was treated to a special preview screening at this year’s London Korean Film Festival and the audience seemed to thoroughly ‘enjoy’ the film, apart from a small number of walkouts during the particularly violent scenes.

I Saw the Devil received a release in Korea earlier this year but due to its violent content it was heavily cut and was relatively unsuccessful at the box office. The cut shown at LKFF was a longer cut than that shown in Korean theatres but was supposedly “the ‘export’ version: slightly gorier and trimmed of expository moments he [Kim Ji-woon] thought westerners wouldn’t need”. There were certainly a number of gory and unflinching scenes of violence but as is often the case this has perhaps been a tad exaggerated in the hype that has surrounded earlier festival screenings.

The film is violent throughout though but this never feels exploitative or unnecessary and the themes of violence, revenge and spiralling morals are deftly handled by Kim Ji-woon. Beginning with the brutal murder of Soo-hyun’s (Byung-hun Lee) fiancée by serial killer Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) the film follows the conventions of a revenge film with Soo-hyun tracking down Kyung-chul and the two facing off in a beautifully directed showdown in a large green house. The thing that sets I Saw the Devil apart though is what happens next. This showdown is only around thirty minutes into the film and there is almost two hours of the thrilling cat and mouse plot yet to unfold. Instead of killing Kyung-chul, Soo-hyun decides to plant a GPS device/microphone in him and let him go. Soo-hyun becomes the hunter, toying with and torturing his prey but not taking the final step to kill.

As Soo-hyun plays this dangerous game with Kyung-chul he becomes corrupted by the lust for revenge and is slowly sucked into the violent world Kyung-chul inhabits. What Kim Ji-woon seems to suggest though is that this violent world is everywhere, bubbling beneath the surface. This is especially evidenced by two random strangers Kyung-chul encounters whilst hitching. I Saw the Devil was originally titled Beyond Good and Evil and, like the Nietzsche book the title is taken from, the film explores the grey between these oft overly simplified moral ideas. The themes of good and evil and the effects of violence present in I Saw the Devil are complex and given the right amount of room to breathe within what is at heart a fascinating and enjoyable thriller.

The unfolding and spiralling thriller infused narrative is incredibly compelling and despite the film’s long running time, Kim Ji-woon manages to inject just enough twists and turns to maintain the tension and ensure the film is gripping throughout. That said there are a few moments where the film felt like it was reaching a crescendo only to pull back and, despite the positive effect this had on ensuring the plot never became too predictable, it did lessen the impact of the ending slightly. What these mini crescendos also offer though is a complex structure of cathartic moments that toy with the audience’s emotions and test their feelings regarding complicity. This never travels too far into the territory of the harsh telling off that one gets from Haneke’s Funny Games though and is a welcome additional thematic element in an already dense piece.

This review was originally posted at HeyUGuys.