“I Saw the Devil” is one of the best samples (if not the best) of revenge-themed, violent, action thrillers that ever came out of S. Korea, in a category with an abundance of entries.
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Kyung-chu, a sadistic murderer, assassinates special agent Soo-hyun’s fiance, Joo-yun. A few days later, the police discover parts of her dismembered body in a river. Jang, the police chief and father of the girl, gives Soo-hyun a list with suspects, and he proceeds in investigating the crime in order to exact revenge. Soon after, Soo-hyun finds the perpetrator, but instead of arresting him, he decides to exact his revenge slowly. His decision initiates a relentless hunt between the two, with the roles of the hunter and the hunted changing constantly and none of the people around them being safe.
The script, up to this point, may not seem unique, but the aforementioned just includes the first 20 minutes of a production that lasts for 140 minutes, where the action and the plot twists never seem to cease. Just keep in mind the word revenge.
Kim Jee-woon presents another grotesque masterpiece, where revenge is the driving force for almost everything occurring on screen. Initially, the film looks like a battle between good and evil, but as the revenge procedure extends, the borders between the two stop being visible, thus resulting in the spectator doubting who the evil one actually is. Furthermore, as Soo-hyun initially seems justified in his actions, he manages to make acceptable a number of actions that would regularly be considered as utterly appalling. Just in the beginning, though.
The graphic depiction of violent and sadistic scenes is intense and frequent, but Kim Jee-woon actually uses it to criticize violence and sadism, highlighting how despicable they are as concepts, particularly when they become actions. This technique is not original, though it is the first time that it is stretched to such extremes. The fact that S. Korean authorities forced Kim to cut a number of scenes in order to allow him to screen the film in the country, is a testament to the fact.
In this fashion, the film benefits the most by Lee Mo-gae’s cinematography, who does not shy away from any grotesqueness, while Nam Na-young’s editing retains the frantic pace of the movie with elaborateness, not giving much time to the audience to loosen up, as the agony is constant.
Lee Byung-hun as Soo-hyun and Choi Min-sik as Kyung-chu give a true acting recital in one of the most impressive one-on-one duels ever to appear in cinema. The latter, however, is definitely on a higher level, as he presents a truly great villain, a sociopath who is actually the protagonist of the film.
“I Saw the Devil” is a masterpiece in all aspects, featuring sublime direction and script-writing, elaborate cinematography and editing, and one of the most shocking endings ever to appear on film.