By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“I Saw the Devil,” a new horror thriller from South Korean director Ji-woon Kim, opens with a flurry of snow falling on a car windshield. The whiteness of the falling flakes creates a soft, sensual look.
All too soon, however, we see the bright red of spilled blood against the white snow.
As “I Saw the Devil” progresses, the viewer sees much more blood. The 144-minute film contains little logic, few likeable characters, and a skewed, irrational appeal to vigilante justice. But people wanting blood, who care little about where it came from, might be satisfied with this movie.
The film’s rotten core is serial killer Kyung-chul, played by well-known South Korean actor Min-sik Choi. Kyung-chul kills for pleasure. In fact, he kills because he seems to have nothing going on his life. He is a remarkably bleak and terrifyingly focused psychopath.
Despite his horrific secret pastimes and disheveled, sinister appearance, even when washed clean of grue, Kyung-chul somehow has a job driving a school bus. He sometimes uses the bright yellow bus to cruise the night for new victims.
One night, Kyung-chul attacks the fiancé of a state secret agent. The woman, Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh), was pregnant with the child of the agent, Soo-hyun (Byung-hun Lee).
The devastated agent decides that he will take matters into his own hands. He will find the monster, fight the monster, and defeat the monster, at any cost.
That cost turns out to be Soo-hyun becoming a monster himself. This is not surprising, given his devastation in losing Joo-yeon.
But it does not excuse Soo-hyun’s actions. As the film progresses, he’ll capture, bind, and torture those he suspects as the murderer. He works them over until they confess to anything. Then he forces them to turn themselves in to the police.
A film without likeable characters will have a tough time appealing to audiences. Kyung-chul is already a monster in the beginning. Soo-hyun throws away his own humanity so quickly, so casually, that the audience can’t feel for him.
Also, Soo-hyun doesn’t seem in a hurry to kill Kyung-chul once he finds him. The agent follows the killer in a long-distance cat-and-mouse game. Soo-hyun gets close to Kyung-chul a few times, but not until after Kyung-chul does something horrible to a fresh victim. The only reason for this gambit is to display as much gore and torture as possible.
Director Kim had to cut a few minutes out of his film to allow for a release in South Korea.
What he might have left out is hard to comprehend. His characters experience all sorts of tortures from all sorts of weapons. Very few of them die quickly. Most die in excruciating pain.
I was willing to watch a film about a grisly killer. And I was willing to watch a film about an officer of the law who ends up becoming the enemy he’s trying to destroy. But “I Saw the Devil” offers no compensating humanity or reference points of a person with sympathy and empathy towards others.
“Devil” is a very scary movie. But not for the reasons its creators seem to think. It offers no insight and no redemption.
Watch it at your own risk. Better yet, don’t watch it at all. ♦
“I Saw the Devil” opens Friday, April 1, at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E. Call 206-781-5755 for prices and show times.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.