I Saw the Devil

Swaggering psychopath
Je-Woon Kim
Byung-Hun Lee, Min-Sik Choi, In-Seo Kim, Chun Ho-Jin
The Setup: 
Man goes to crazy lengths to avenge his murdered fiancée.

I became curious about this mainly because of its awesome poster, then saw a laudatory mention, and learned that the director, Je-Woon Kim, is one of a handful of South Korean directors being courted to make Hollywood films because of their successes overseas. This director just delivered an American film, Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback The Last Stand, that flopped. But that didn't stop me.

We open with a POV of a car driving down a road at night through a lovely / ominous snowfall. There are lit plastic angel wings on the rear-view mirror. There is a woman, Ju-Yeon, waiting for a tow truck in her stalled car while on the phone with her fiancé, Soo-Hyeon, a police operative. This yellow school van, the one with the angel wings, stops and the driver asks if she wants a ride. She says no, she'll wait for the bus. The guy gets back in the van, but doesn't leave. She says goodbye to Soo-Hyeon, and there's a great, scary shot as she looks at the van, then the camera whips over to find the guy right outside, with a hammer. He smashes the window and comes in the car, bashing the woman in the head, sending blood spattering. He takes her to his hideout, where she begs for her life and tells him she's pregnant. He chops her up and puts all the pieces in a bin. This is clearly one of those movies that is not going to shy away from serious gore.

Next these kids are playing by a river when one of them finds a severed ear. Surely I needn't tell you that this is a reference to Blue Velvet. That night there is a huge police force out searching the river, and one of them finds what looks like a head. He pokes it, and in what I found to be the movie's best image, the current of the water slowly pulls the hair away to reveal the face. The music and editing ramp way up here, creating a big emotional moment, which had me hoping the movie would rival the similarly effective emotional ramp-ups and indelibly creepy images of the wonderful Memories of Murder. The guy puts the head in a box, but stumbled on shore, sending the head rolling into view of the girl's father and Soo-Hyeon, who has an emotional implosion.

Soo-Hyeon meets with the father of Ju-Yeon, the victim, who is the retired police chief. The father supplies Soo-Hyeon with profiles of the four suspects. Then Soo-Hyeon takes two weeks off from work. He finds the first two suspects and determines their innocence while also leaving both heavily damaged. He's not going to play nice, or fair, it seems. Then he visits the family of the third suspect, who say their son is a psychopath and left them some time ago. He also sees the killer's son, and realizes that this guy, Kyung, is the one. Meanwhile, Kyung is off abducting another girl, and taking her to his greenhouse for slicing and dicing. But Soo-Hyeon is there.

Soo-Hyeon beats him and breaks his wrist, then forces something down his throat. He then leaves, and you're like: "That's it?" You also might be like: "So where is the rest of this movie going to go?" Kyung, the killer, wanders the highway and is picked up by a cab with a passenger in back. After a tense build-up, he kills them both with a knife as the car is speeding down the highway, another crazily exciting sequence. There is also a ton of spurting blood here. Around now is also where we start following Kyung half the time, and he becomes a key character, not just a menace lurking along the sidelines.

He goes to a doctor and takes the nurse into a back room where he forces her to strip for him. This movie contains just a smidge too much leering at girls in peril and while being sexually exploited, edging over the line in which it becomes exploitation itself. Anyway, just as Kyung is about to rape the nurse, Soo-Hyeon shows up, and beats him again. This time, he slices Kyung Achilles heel. He tells Kyung that his torment is just beginning, and now you get it: Soo-Hyeon is going to track Kyung everywhere he goes, try to stop his crimes, and torment him over a long period of time. This, also, is the point where the movie goes from being amazing and electrifying to merely quite good.

Ju-Yeon's dad, the police chief, calls Soo-Hyeon and asks him to stop. But he won't. He follows Kyung to a hotel where his friend works, where his friend eats the human flesh of the girls he kills. The film lets things remain confusing for a while, but soon reveals that, guess what? This guy is ALSO a serial killer. After a while Soo-Hyeon shows up, there's a big, exciting fight, and all baddies get beaten to a pulp. The police wants Soo-Hyeon to stop. Kyung overhears that he has a tracking device inside him, and that the only way to get it out is diarrhea, which yes, we soon SEE. Now Kyung is loose and Soo-Hyeon has no way to track him.

It all leads to a climax that is fitting and makes sense. We get just enough of Kyung repenting to make it satisfying, and Soo-Hyeon sheds just enough tears over what he has become to keep us liking him. Still, the best parts of the movie are over by the halfway mark. Having a second serial killer who is friends with the first strains credulity a bit. That the police are utterly helpless, both to catch the killers, who have been working for a while, and to stop Soo-Hyeon, is a bit ridiculous. There are few showstopper sequences like the head in the river and the speeding-cab-knife-fight, but they're hard to top. And also, we kind of see where this is going, and it goes there, then it's over.

Min-Sik Choi is excellent as Kyung, who plays his role with gusto and swagger, which the part needs in order for us to believe that he'd just continue raping and killing even when he knows that Soo-Hyeon is following right behind him. This is also important simply to keep the story going. But his dead eyes and antagonism against the world help make sense of this character, even when it seems that anyone as smart as he is would stop killing and take flight. Byun-Hun Lee as Soo-Hyeon has a great look, conveying murderous rage contained behind his mask of stillness, and is able to keep visible emotion boiling behind his eyes. But again, the idea that this intelligent killer would just keep on when he knows he's being hunted starts to reveal the movie's contrivances, and deflate the energy a bit when it should be tightening.

Still, it's very good. It's just that the thrills of the beginning are difficult to sustain, and maybe it should have been twenty minutes shorter to keep things chugging nicely. If you've seen Memories of Murder, this is a fine next step, but if not, I would start there first.

Should you watch it: 

Yeah, it's quite good, exciting and scary.