October Nightmares #5: I Saw the Devil (2010)


It'd be fair to say that cinema is rather obsessed with serial killers. Just imagine a personified Hollywood looking dreamily up at posters of a shirtless Ted Bundy plastered on its bedroom wall. From Psycho's amiable Norman Bates to Seven's poetic killer, Hollywood has a rich history of romanticising murderers as the Cowboys of our time. They're invariably portrayed as renegades who reject society's most important and ingrained rules, to indulge their inner-most desires. A sentiment that I'm confident our current "me-first" culture can get behind. But even when they're not depicted as rule breaking anti-heroes, serial killers still serve to provide the theatre-going masses with cheap thrills.    

For me, the films that are most effective in their utilisation of serial killers are those daring to bypass the gushing sentiment in favour of a more nihilistic perspective. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, for example, is unflinching in its depiction of a psychopath and complicity by proxy of admiration. Director John McNaughton's willingness to handle the subject matter in a brutally frank way without any sugar-coating, allowed Henry to feel like a breath of fresh air in a genre populated by the likes of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Good does not prevail by virtue of being good alone; we are not guaranteed a return to a comfortable state of sanity and order just because the status quo demands it. Which brings me to I Saw the Devil - a South Korean horror film/revenge thriller. Because of course it bloody is. South Korea have a bit of a Misery-esque crazy captive thing going on with revenge thrillers, and they're refusing to give them back.

I Saw the Devil is an uncompromising exploration of evil and the virtuous' inability to stop it without sacrificing their principals. An unending cycle of punishment and retribution is at the heart of the film's narrative as intelligence operative Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) seeks vengeance for the murder of fiancée at the hands of crazed killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik). Choosing not just to end Kyung-chul's sorry existence, Soo-hyun devises a brutal game of cat and mouse - continually letting the killer flee before attacking and recapturing him. I Saw the Devil makes for bleak viewing. From the opening depicting the murder of Soo-hyun's fiancée, the film never really relents on its love for graphic violence. Making it a difficult film to masturbate to, but boy did I sure try.

Given the cyclical nature of Kyung-chul's punishment, I Saw the Devil's plot feels like it plays out in a series of vignettes.  It would be sort of like Mr Benn if the shopkeeper stocked bloody surgical overalls and human skin costumes. My favourite 'Where is Kyung-chul' moment is when he visits his friend Tae-joo (Choi Moo-sung) at the latter's remote farmhouse. Tae-joo, as it transpires, is a cannibalistic serial killer. I suppose this is like when sex offenders are friends with other sex offenders so that they can talk about all the exciting developments in the world of sex offending. The entire sequence at Tae-joo's sinister farmhouse is more blackly comic than the rest of the film's grim outlook. Kyung-chul dines with Tae-joo and his girlfriend Se-jung (Kim In-seo) discussing the intricacies of bloody violence over a sophisticated dinner compromised of human meat and fine wine. Tae-joo excuses himself by saying he is going to prepare breakfast for tomorrow, and his next scene showing him preparing to kill and carve up a captive woman. Kyung-chul takes Tae-joo's gesture of opening up his home to him, as a licence for frenzied copulation with Se-jung.

I Saw the Devil's liberal use of savagery against women does seem rather misogynistic and makes the film unpalatable at times. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not a checking my gender pronouns kind of guy; but I did find the film's abundance of rapes, attempted rapes, and questionable consensual sex a bit much. That being said, I appreciate director Kim Ji-woon's dedication to warts and all cruelty. Kyung-chul truly is an irredeemable bastard. A far cry from Choi Min-sik's role in Old Boy as a flawed man turned savage through circumstance. Here he worships at the altar of death and relishes in transcending his victims through mutilation. The very first scene highlights just how completely devoid of mercy or emotion he is, as he hunts and attacks a stranded Joo-yun (Oh San-ha). Unlike most Hollywood created serial killers you'd be hard pressed to look at Kyung-chul with a modicum of respect without first smearing shit into your eyes and ears.

Beneath the broken bodies and rivers of blood, I Saw the Devil is an unrelentingly melancholic film. Soo-hyun's vendetta is at once sympathetic and accessible to the audience, in no small part due to the rather moving first act. Though the ghastliness and mayhem gradually escalate - resulting in a glaring inevitable shift in the paradigm - it is Lee Byung-hun's remarkable performance as the heartbroken agent that shines through. So while the violence may reach 'torture porn' levels of uncomfortable, there's at least a compelling framework to provide context. The 'revenge' isn't just a series of hollow encounters designed to showcase crowd-pleasing gore effects as is the case with most revenge-thrillers. No, it's there to give a point of reference to the downward spiral of madness. See, the real horror of I Saw the Devil isn't just Kyung-chul's depravity, but that the capacity for animalistic violence exists within us all - highlighted by the fact that we so readily identify with Soo-hyun's campaign. I'm reminded of the iconic phrase by Friedrich Nietzsche. I believe it goes something like: "He who fights monsters should see to it that the Koreans don't turn it into another pissing revenge-thriller."


"Not another well executed and compelling thriller!"