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I Saw The Devil (2010,Korea)

23/01/2012

Director: Jee-woon Kim        Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon 

For those among us who like our films swimming in the extreme end of the horror pool you really have to look east for something that will truly challenge the senses with outrageously explicit nastiness. Korea is a case in point, a nation that produces some of the most extreme cinema I’ve ever borne witness to, sometimes so graphic and disturbing that the country’s own censors don’t allow them to be shown. I Saw The Devil nearly fell foul of this phenomenon, although with heavy cutting made its way to Korean cinemas.

Opening with the abduction of a young woman who is awaiting roadside assistance for her flat tyre, it wastes no time in introducing us to Kyung-chul (Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi) a deeply disturbed serial killer who likes nothing better than to molest and dismember young ladies. This time though he has chosen the wrong victim, in this case the fiancee of Kim soo-hyeon (Byung Hun-lee of A Bittersweet Life fame), an agent in the Korean Secret Service and daughter of the chief of police. Unhampered by the same restrictions of the police, Kim Soo-hyeon embarks upon a mission of vengeance, quickly homing in on the man responsible and hounding him with a protracted and somewhat unorthodox campaign of vengeance.

Brutal isn’t the word. This is the kind of film that challenges the acceptable limits in cinema. Kyung-chul’s horrific crimes are illustrated pretty graphically, the film being littered with scenes of murder and dismemberment that are as technically accomplished as they are stomach-turningly gruesome. Kim’s vengeance is just as grotesque. His plan is to hound the killer, foiling his attempts to relieve his murderous impulses at the last moment, denying Kyung the relief of the kill, whilst incrementally incapacitating him, one body part at a time (including the one thing that always makes me wince without fail – the good old “blade through the achilles tendon” routine). If you are even remotely squeamish about onscreen violence and blood, this is definitely not the film for you.

The film’s biggest issue in my book is that unlike something like fellow Korean Kim Jinwon’s The Butcher (a film that remains banned in Korea) which is even more extreme than I Saw The Devil, it’s difficult to see the point. Yes, there’s a question here about the nature of vengeance and whether or not Kim Soo-hyeon is justified in his extreme methods to end the killer’s reign of terror but beyond that there is a sense of voyeuristic delight in the grotesqueness of the violence without any purpose behind it. It’s obviously possible to argue that to make a film about such horrible crimes without having the nerve to depict them would be hypocritical in itself but there reaches a point in the film’s two and a half hour running time where you get the feeling that enough is enough and start wishing that they’d spend less time dwelling on the nastiness and more time getting on with the story.

If you do manage to keep your attention on proceedings until the end it turns out to be a reasonably satisfying tale of revenge and its inherent evils with some excellent set pieces and one of the more innovative methods of vengeance imaginable. It’s remarkably satisfying seeing the tables turned on the monstrous killer, even when you know deep down the most sensible thing to do would be to either deliver him to the police or put a bullet in his head and that drawing out not only provides the possibility that something can go wrong but also starts to erode your support to the point where the crusading Kim starts to seem a lot more like his murderous nemesis than is comfortable.

With twenty minutes or so trimmed from the running time, I Saw The Devil has the potential to be an excellent foray into the perils of revenge but this bloated edit definitely outstays its welcome slightly, overdoing the savagery and thus reducing its impact. It is, therefore, a poor cousin to the half as long and twice as shocking The Butcher but still stands as a decent entry in the serial killer horror department and has more than enough gore to keep the most hardened horror fan happy. If you are of a more sensitive disposition though, I would give it a miss.

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