I consider myself a hardened, desensitized moviegoer. So, when a scene in a movie makes me cringe a little bit because its so intensely violent, then the filmmakers have entered some rare air and deserve praise for being well accomplished, socially acceptable maniacs. I Saw the Devil is not for the faint of heart. It depicts some of the most brutal torture scenes I’ve seen in recent memory. It would be a grave mistake, however, to group this in with the “Torture Porn” films like the Saw franchise, the Hostel films, and countless others. I Saw the Devil has an extremely well written revenge plot and one of the sickest, most monstrous performances ever by Min-Sik Choi.
I was first introduced to the work of Min-Sik Choi, and Korean films in general, by a former co-worker Jeremy Drake. He handed me a DVD to borrow called Oldboy, a movie that has held up as one of my all-time favorites (thankfully the Will Smith remake crashed and burned before it left the ground). I had never seen such a brutally violent, yet poignant portrayal of revenge. To my delight I discovered more gems like this from Korea, from Oldboy director Chan-Wook Park and Jee-woon Kim who was responsible for A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life (the latter also borrowed from Mr. Drake). Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil shares the revenge element and a lead actor with Oldboy, but that is where the the similarities end.
A woman driving alone in the snow gets a flat tire. While talking to her fiancee on the phone and waiting for a tow truck to arrive, a friendly passerby stops his commute home to see if he can help. This is the bread and butter of horror films and urban legends around the world. The friendly, helpful strangers are always suspected killers with false compassion for someone in distress. The distressed party always seems to trust the stranger, despite the voice in their head telling them to stay away from this person. When they are in dire straights, it is then that they abandon their instinct and necessity takes over. More than ever they need to believe in the kindness of strangers, that people are truly willing to sacrifice their own interests to help another. Its right about then that a hammer comes crashing through their window, shattering the illusion that everything is going to be okay, along with their skull, ribs, collar bone and hands.
With a brutally butchered fiancee, a special agent (Byung-hun Lee) goes on a vigilante rampage through suspects to find the killer. Now usually in this type of film, our hero spends the nearly the entire film chasing this psycho until finally catching up to him for a suspenseful climax, so it’s very surprising that this happens in the first 45 minutes of the film that runs nearly 2 ½ hours. A brutal fight ensues that leaves the killer crippled and broken lying in a hole in the ground, with an envelope full of money on his chest. Why leave this sick fuck money? A simple underlying message. Go to a doctor and get healed up, because I’m going to do this to you again.
Min-Sik Choi deserved some kind of awards recognition for his twisted performance. He created one of the most evil characters ever who is completely comfortable in his own skin. So comfortable, in fact that it dawned on me that this was one of a very few serial killer films were the villain actually invokes empathy from the audience despite the hellish acts he has committed. Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter comes to mind in this regard. Watching Silence of the Lambs, you want him to escape and be free because he is being helpful and cooperating. It feels like he deserves it. Hopkins had class though, an animal in gentleman’s clothing. Min-Sik Choi’s Kyung-chul does not invoke empathy in this way. He is a monster through and through, inside and out. The empathy comes from the fact that so much pain is inflicted on this bastard that you actually feel sorry for him thanks to Choi’s gutturally screaming, tortured performance. The audience’s choice of hero between the suffering killer and the vengeful fiancee is not as easy as it first appeared, especially when the violence by Lee gets cranked up to teeth clenching level. The line between good and evil is hard to see when it’s covered in blood.