Let’s be clear. This film is a not a detective story, but a character study about what seeking revenge can do to you. The audience will meet the villain fairly quickly and will be forced to spend an inordinate amount of time with him and his bloody proclivities. The murderer you may recognize as Min-Sik Choi from the disappointing Lucy (2014) & the universally lauded Oldboy (2003) and our protagonist as Byung Hun Lee of Red 2 (2003), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and was cast as the T-1000 in Terminator Genisys (why are we making another one) set to be released sometime this year. Both deliver particularly compelling performances as the serial killer and the special agent tracking him down. Although the Netflix description warns us that this is a film in which a secret service agent’s fiancé is murdered propelling him on a quest for vengeance, it still doesn’t prepare for how emotionally exhausting the experience will be.
The opening scene is a sublime honey trap. It’s perfectly set up to make the audience fall in love with this sweet unassuming couple. Soo-hyun (Lee) even hides in the bathroom to sing to her on the phone while his fiancé waits for a tow truck. Amidst all this cute boolovin and falling snow, the predator appears all I could do what scream at the screen. They had gotten me. Two minutes in, I supported their love and was looking through their wedding registries. Although I knew a frightful death was coming, it didn’t take the sting off when the brutality began.
Here, our hero takes the kind of revenge every onscreen victim’s family only dreams of whereas ordinarily, they’re relegated to a blubbering footnote while we are shown the gory details of the investigation. Soo-huyn seeks to inflict all the pain and terror that Kyung-Chul inflicted on his victims, but it slowly takes its toll. It’s understood what pain and misery this decision will bring to Soo-huyn and his family, but he’s dealing with a truly hideous villain: a serial rapist/murderer who also dismembers the young girls and women he abducts. Now despite Dr. Lecter’s propensity for cannibalism, he’s a villain whose elegant and genteel ways ensure that if you met him at a dinner party, you’d understand why people liked him. Choi’s Kyung-chul on the other hand, is as distasteful as it gets. There is nothing personable or remotely human about him that can convince the viewer that a person would want to speak to him, let alone get into a car with him. Every time the character appeared, I immediately felt as though I needed a bath.
Each scene is shot and lit, beautifully. Even now, it seems distasteful to apply this word to a film with such disturbing subject matter, but it is true. Despite gory displays of viscera, torture and dismemberment, your eyes want to linger on the shots that are clearly set up with such care and precision. Hell, it would be rude not to. Despite a -really- rather long film at 2 hours 21 minutes, it doesn’t precisely feel long. One particularly disturbing scene involves a continuous 360 degree shot complete with arterial spray and lots of stabbing.
Action, psychological thriller, torture porn and pure horror sound like too many genres to play well within the context of one film. It’s a slippery slope, but with the help of careful editing, compelling performances and beautiful direction by Ji-woon Kim, “I Saw the Devil” works. I highly recommend watching this film, but mentally prepare yourself before doing so. This film is a relentless, exhausting odyssey into one tormented mind and a mentally ill one. With so many body parts removed and a particularly disturbing performance from Min-Sik Choi, you may want to turn off the TV afterward and try something more wholesome like playing with a puppy or calling your mom.
featured image via: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Saw_the_Devil