The performances are extraordinary. Choi Min-sik’s sadistic villain, Kyung-Chul, is one of the most horrifying characters I have ever seen grace a screen. He is pure evil – and what makes him even more despicable are that his atrocities are accompanied by this sense of relish and self-satisfaction. He spends most of the film scarred from beatings, and limping around, so it must have been a strenuous shoot. In an extremely intense role, Lee Byung-hun is also excellent. Having to balancing a desire to inflict pain and torture on the man responsible for destroying his life, while at the same time horrified at what he finds himself doing, Lee pulls it off admirably.
One of the few problems I had with the film was its length (144 minutes), and the incessant grisly mayhem rarely lets up as the narrative becomes increasingly ridiculous. Within minutes we have already seen the brutal murder of this helpless young woman and her vile dismemberment, and this unpleasant sort of thing continues up until the final minutes. While the filmmaking is exceptionally accomplished – cleverly scripted, beautifully filmed, edited and scored - each spectacle of violence is shockingly realistic, and doesn’t shy away from exposing it to the audience, turning the film into an unexpected endurance test.
Though the film’s emotional backbone (whether revenge can truly aid one's grievances, and whether it justifies sinking to the level of the monster you’re seeking revenge against) is effectively relayed, as well as subverting the conventions of the serial killer thriller and revenge film, it still feels like Kim and Park keep challenging the audience by asking: How much more of this gruesome violence can you stomach? Considering the beating that Kyung-chul receives throughout the film, he should not be able to defend himself as well as he does. At one point his Achilles tendon is severed, which should have immobilized him for a lot longer than it did. But, considering how suspenseful some of the sequences are, this cat-and-mouse revenge thriller does enough right to make a viewer forgive the implausibility.
Though it is violent to an often-unsettling extent, I Saw the Devil is not a scary film. I was not lying awake that night haunted by the images, but a lot of the scenes of torture are very difficult to watch. But, this might be one of the best-looking ugly films I have ever seen. For a film that feels like a pulpy B-grade horror, the photography is absolutely stunning, especially the wintry night captures, and every splash of red (there is a lot of it) pops off the screen. If I could compare a recent film that manages to create such an unsettling atmosphere and is viscerally on the level of I Saw the Devil, it would probably be Nicholas Winding Refn’s, Drive. Yeah, that good. Every frame is cleverly constructed and there are numerous altercations between Choi and Lee that defy belief. The score is fantastic, there are some inventive set pieces, and the make-up and effects team should be credited for making the infliction of violence ‘feel’ so real.
I Saw the Devil is an often-maddening revenge thriller not recommended for the squeamish, and while it works as a fascinating study into the moral complexities that blur the lines between sadism and heroism, I was simply in awe of Kim Ji-woon’s work. I can’t say I will revisit the film anytime soon, but for genre fans, it's one you shouldn’t miss.
My Rating: ★★★★ (B)