The stories we read, listen to, and watch have to go to extremes. Everyday life is boring, you don’t want a movie about someone having a regular day. So instead we get tales featuring disastrous mistakes, shocking epiphanies, whirlwind romances, and brutal violence. That last one is tricky, because everyone hates violence and it’s not really a part of most people’s lives. Writers often clear that hurdle by finding a reason to justify violence, and the easiest one to come up with is having bad guys kidnap or kill some guy’s spouse. They do that, now we’re OK watching our man do some heinous shit to save her/get revenge. That’s kind of fucked up, right?
I Saw the Devil is a 2010 film directed by Kim Jee-woon (who would go on to usher in Schwarzenegger’s return with The Last Stand) and written by Kim and Park Hoon-jung. It is dedicated to exploring and unpacking the complexities of cinematic violence and revenge by showing them in a truly unsavory light. I feel like you could write about this movie and it would sound kind of a like an action flick, even though the reality is truly unpleasant. I think John even told me some people compare this film to Taken, which had just come out a few years earlier. Well, I guess you could say this is a twisted version of that.
Here’s the story: Jang Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) is stopped on the side of the road one snowy night with a flat tire. A man, Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, the Oldboy guy) stops and offers to help her, then smashes her windows and knocks her out. Joo-yun awakens in Kyung-chul’s terrifying basement and begs for her life, saying she’s pregnant, but he nonetheless murders her and slices her into pieces. When her body parts are found, it breaks the heart of police chief Jang (Jeon Gook-hwan), her father, and hardens the resolve of Kim Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), her fiance and a secret agent. Chief Jang ends up acquiring a list of suspects and gives them to Soo-hyun, who sets off to find the killer on his own.
What surprised me is that it doesn’t take Soo-hyun that long at all to find Kyung-chul. He’s one of the four initial suspects and Soo-hyun quickly finds Kyung-chul’s family, and then his home. There, Soo-hyun finds evidence of many murders, including conclusive proof that Kyung-chul had killed Joo-yun. This is all in maybe the first half hour of the movie, I couldn’t believe it. Soo-hyun then finds Kyung-chul about to rape a child and beats the shit out of him. But he doesn’t kill the psychopath, oh no. Instead, Kyung-chul awakens and finds he’s been left alone and given a wad of cash. The implication is clearly that a game is afoot: Kyung-chul is going to be hunted a released by Soo-hyun over and over until our “hero” has gotten his revenge. But what if Kyung-chul can outsmart Soo-hyun? Can Soo-hyun finish his game before the police get them?
So it is like Taken in that I Saw the Devil‘s protagonist has an unbeatable set of skills and is facing off against a mad man who thinks he can take him. Another comparison I thought of is The Fugitive, but if Kimble definitely did actually kill his wife and Gerard was a sadistic son of a bitch. I also was reminded of Prisoners, a movie where a wronged man takes extraordinary actions in the hopes of getting revenge for his family. It seems like there are a lot of American films that delve into exactly this well of hatred, anger, and self-destruction, but none with the sheer brutality of I Saw the Devil.
Soo-hyun does some things, oh boy, let me tell you. Stabbings and beatings, sure, but also rippings, and insertions, and elaborate trappings. It’s hard to watch, even though the film also shows you how evil Kyung-chul by giving him his fair share of murders and rapes. And there’s the complexity, I guess. Undoubtedly, this is an anti-revenge movie, but it doesn’t deny that Kyung-chul really needs to be stopped. Everywhere the guy goes, he tries to hurt people. And Soo-hyun’s methods, while morally wrong and and endangering to innocent people, do lead to discoveries the police would likely not have made on their own. Maybe there isn’t a black and white concept of right and wrong in the real world? Maybe there are shades of grey? Like, 50 of them?