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Far East Extreme: a Reconsideration of “I Saw the Devil”

Wednesday, December 12, 2018 | News

Welcome to another column of Far-East Extreme. Today, we are going Korean, where the pros go for the grimiest blood-soaked dirty mukbangs out there. Korean horror films are an interesting case study, because the whole media landscape in South Korea didn’t even allow for these kind of movies until relatively recently.

After the abolition of military dictatorship and liberalizing reforms throughout the 1990s, Korean directors wasted little time using their newfound artistic freedom to paint portraits of absolute terror, with trailblazers such as Whispering Corridors and The Quiet Family. The genre hit full speed in the early 2000s with Park chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which was followed up a year later with Oldboy.  You see, in addition to spooky ghost girls haunting schools and arcane curses, the Koreans also have a love for revenge flicks. What happens when an otherwise good person, who, being overwhelmed with grief, finally snaps? We will seek to answer that with today’s offering: I SAW THE DEVIL.

These rape-and-revenge type horror-thrillers usually follow a certain formula, which actually says quite a bit about the people who might watch them and the society in which they live. Unlike the average action popcorn muncher where the good guy might win back/avenge his significant whatever in the third act, the audience already knows going in that so-and-so is going to die (usually in the first 20 minutes or so), and the rest of the film is said revenge, cooked nice and slow. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Crow, when you think about it, is just a stylized, sanitized, revenge flick. For that matter, so is Batman. People really like vigilante justice; imagining what it would be like to discard all the mores of society, and having the guts to go through with said justice: at that point you are only limited by your own imagination and your lust for blood. And man, is there blood.

I SAW THE DEVIL tells the tale of one Kim Soo-Hyun, an average everyday government agent who misses his wife’s birthday one snowy night. Things go from bad to worse for Mrs. Kim, as she is then abducted by bus driver Jang Kung-Chul, dismembered, and eaten. Naturally, with the causality of these movies being what they are, Kim blames himself for everything, and after his wives head is found in a nearby pond, swears eternal revenge. I SAW THE DEVIL earns its extreme stripes straight out of the gate just by the amount of red sauce on film here, which ended up being censored in its native land and in many countries abroad. Sounds great so far, right?

As for the plot: Kim’s search for the big bad guy first leads him to battle a few other miscreants before he can find his wife’s killer. First we have a pervert, who, after being caught watching porn (second only to camp counselors having sex on the horror movie no-no list) is beaten senseless with a wrench, and another would-be criminal is simply dispatched in broad daylight. Kim is, by the way, really, really good at fighting. For a horror movie, this may actually have some of the best fight choreography I’ve seen in a long while, and we are allowed to enjoy these fight sequences more or less as a guilty pleasure, because the movie still hasn’t told us exactly what it wants to be.

The first act of the film is all over the place in terms of tone, it must be said. The gratuity of Mrs. Kim’s naked body – first whole then chopped up – is shocking, but when we see a bumbling cop investigating the crime scene hilariously drop the bag containing her head, I thought the movie was going for the over-the-top, Tokyo Zombie-esque levels of blood, guts, and body parts.  But then, almost immediately, the film tries to take itself seriously again. This tension is promptly extinguished because of the absurdity of the invincible good guy going up against psychopaths armed with guns and knives with his bare hands, even a superhuman government-funded killing machine like Mr. Kim. This is fine though, why can’t horror movies be party to the honorable good guy trope as well? However, it is somewhat unexpected of said honorable good guy to beat up bad guy honorably, only to then choke him out with a plastic bag a la the manhunt video games.

The term manhunt is rather apt, since once Kim and Jang find one another the focal point of the movie is just waiting until they collide with each other again and again. As I mentioned, Superman Kim could easily dispatch Jang, but instead he decides not to, as he’d rather get his revenge. And we get to watch! Minus any real tension from then on, mind you. There is no question from this point that Kim is capable of doing basically whatever he wants. But what of his adversary?

As previously mentioned, Jang is, among other things, a bona-fide cannibal. But, unfortunately, this isn’t the fun kind of cannibalism. Anyone remember Ravenous? No, I SAW THE DEVIL seems to want to take itself very seriously by this stage. Which should be fine, after all; the Vengeance films all played it straight, and were better for it. Like those earlier classics, the splatter bits are also wonderfully filmed here.

The camera has an iron stomach even if you don’t, and never shies away from anything- especially memorable is a scene with a girl who takes a tire iron to the noggin a few times too many courtesy of Jang. Jang, though seemingly the titular devil, is a rather aimless villain all told. His archetype is perhaps most similar to someone like the Joker: merely a chaotic entity, which gives him a blank check to do just about anything regardless of logic or common sense. Jang doesn’t feel pain and fear but will beg for his life; he’ll offer to turn himself in to the authorities and then escape so he can turn himself in somewhere else. His motivation at one point seems to be simply to get under Kim’s skin, and then apparently be content to stay locked up in prison forever to deny Kim his revenge.

It almost reminds me of Seven in the clandestine way where one strangers life now suddenly revolves around another’s for no other reason than him being a movie hero, except the killer in that film had very clear motivations, nonsensical as they may have been. Are you telling me the supposed embodiment of evil would rather go to prison forever than chance a fight to the death? At least John Doe believed in something.  

“I Saw the Devil earns its extreme stripes straight out of the gate just by the amount of red sauce on film here, which ended up being censored in its native land and in many countries abroad.”

If the film is lacking in immersion this is no fault of the actors, who play their roles well, almost irritatingly so; as you cannot even take enjoyment in the many clichés that pop up (including an honest to goodness jump scare!) as you would be able to in horror films that aren’t half as well acted but also don’t take themselves half as seriously.  The only time, by and large, the film veers from predictability is when the characters make even stupider decisions than you would’ve thought. Unlike a Friday the 13th film, in which said character would then likely be shoved into a sleeping bag and bashed into a tree over and over by a hockey-masked villain, both hero and villain are free to be dumb as they wanna be until the films conclusion.

The movie does manage to get itself bogged down with trite clichés rather quickly. Mrs. Kim, even before she dies, is portrayed as some sort of angel, with the first lines of dialogue in the film being about nuns and churches, and the Kim house, as we later see, is covered in Christian memorabilia. Clearly, these are the good guys. We like them. They probably have pleasant minty breath and give good tips in restaurants.

This isn’t all: Just about every woman in the film, prior to their murder, is shown being about as pure as the driven snow. This, however, is not true of just about anyone else. The world of I SAW THE DEVIL is a very bad place, where even seemingly innocent people have dead bodies in the backseats of their cars, and another criminal is always just around the corner. That may also explain, for instance, the willingness of other characters to actually help Kim in his quest for revenge. Why bother worrying about laws when vigilantes are just so cool?

This is, I suppose, the expected audience reaction; from the time of Last House on the Left or even Death Wish, the audience has been trained in these films to identify with the fallen hero exacting revenge. And if we don’t want to stop him, why should anyone else? At least, to the films credit, it doesn’t waste time explaining how little everyone else seems to care: the movie on the whole contains very little dialogue, and what is there serves merely to move the plot along. Occasionally two characters will talk on the phone detailing what will happen next, then on to that scene we go. An exception to this is the ending, where, finally, the movie stops to breathe a little and everyone can just chat for a bit and actually develop some character. Unfortunately, it is too little, too late.

So what are we supposed to get out of this film? Not much, aside from revenge being bad and the world being a terrible place. Is that all this movie really has to say? If so, then the fictional narrative is completely wasted; you’d feel the same watching two hours of cable news with a few commercials of whatever new Marvel movie is out this month. The violent bits and the fight scenes are far too sparse to make up for the tired drudgery in-between. The movie attempts, rather than make you think or give you much in the way of spectacle, to simply play with your emotions, just in the cheapest basest way.

Again, have you ever seen Death Wish? Nothing new to see here. I SAW THE DEVIL is a very fatalistic movie, a moral tale minus the moral, yet it still tells the story with a heavy hand. I tried to like this film, but I also wanted more. Honestly, I wanted there to be subtext, symbolism, a giant animatronic fire-spewing devil, anything! Is it wrong to want either meaning, art, or entertainment in a movie? This film is just mostly meaningless nihilism with good fight choreography, but no thought and hardly any fun. Ultimately, I SAW THE DEVIL is a hollow and empty film in a pretty, blood-soaked package.

Alex Ehrenreich
I'm a writer and horror-lover currently living in Tokyo. Be sure to check out my column "Far-East Extreme" where I write about the best in Asian horror cinema every month.