Anton Chigurh (“No Country for Old Men”), Don Logan (“Sexy Beast”), Max Cady (“Cape Fear”) and Frank Booth (“Blue Velvet”) are movie villains of a different ilk. They are less charisma than threat and within one minute of screentime we understand that they are not placed in the story to entertain or merely frustrate us, but rather to impose their savage moralities on everyone they encounter. They are driven to hurt people. They aren’t in touch with the pain that brought them to this vicious state, nor are they concerned with the conditions of others beyond what it means to their basest impulses. For these reasons we know intuitively that unbridled brutality will be the centerpiece of their every endeavor during the film. These heartless demons elicit from us a deeper form of fear than a faceless slasher, one that is grounded in knowing that their despicable qualities are echoed more closely in reality than most other screen villains. They inspire unease in our reptilian brain; one that may be triggered by the dreadful prospects of meeting such an animal in our everyday lives. The latest pledge to this exclusive club of sociopathic screen devils is Kyung-chul, the rapist/serial killer at the heart of Korean director Kim Jee-Woon’s (“A Tale of Two Sisters”) latest film “I Saw the Devil”.
The story starts with Detective Kim Soo-hyeon’s fiancée Joo-yeon stranded on a remote mountain road waiting for a tow truck driver. The couple is on the phone when a man pulls up to offer Joo-yeon some assistance. Soo-hyeon is hurried off the phone but he implores Joo-yeon not to accept help from the stranger. She takes her fiancee's advice and refuses the offer, but the man abducts her anyway. Her abductor, Kyung-chul takes Joo-yeon back to his home where he brutalizes her then listens to her plead for her life and that of her unborn child before cutting her apart.
Joo-yeon’s head is later recovered in a riverbed and a grief ravaged Soo-hyeon vows to his dead fiancée to make her killer experience all the anguish that she did. What follows is an unreasonably compelling two hour game of cat and mouse vengeance that treats the audience to tight, ferocious action sequences as it charts the development of one of the most genuinely frightening screen beasts of all time.
“I Saw the Devil” has deeply clichéd secondary characters, clumsily contrived plot devices and some none too flattering portrayals of female characters as passive victims who make bad choices. It also has a middle passage that is almost “Frontiers”-esque in its utilization of bad-hillbilly horror tropes. These lukewarm elements really undermine the gravity that we are meant to feel as the once principled hero Soo-hyeon loses himself in the task of dismantling Kyung-chul’s life. To confuse matters further the film’s darkly comic aspects are woven so deeply into the script that it can be hard at times to discern between a wink and pathos.
Almost none of these complaints matter. This is because this movie belongs to Ming-sik Choi as Kyung-chul. Actors almost always say that playing the heavy is a more desirable gig, but rarely do these desires find the perfect synthesis of performer, story and director that is needed to create a celluloid creature like Kyung-chul. What might be even more unsettling than watching this monster work is watching him evolve. Director Kim, Choi, and screenwriter Hoon-jung Park show us Kyung-chul as a Chigurh-rian force of evil but also as a pathetic, frustrated and powerless fool. Far from a Hannibal Lecter-type sinister genius, Choi’s fiendish lout is simply the most violent, reactive and irretrievably damaged kind of person that our world can churn out. It is a whale of a turn by an actor who would be on everyone’s shortlist if his English were at a Hollywood level.
From this performance everything else comes forth. The weaknesses are more glaring because of the greatness of the portrayal but the strengths are also more recognizable because they help facilitate such greatness. Kim Jee-Woon really allows his lead actors to have their moments and this deepens the universe in which the atrocities unfold. Additionally the action scenes, which are impeccably shot and choreographed, are also perfectly placed to draw attention away from the more forced plot points.
Without its dynamic monster, “I Saw the Devil” would not be a rave worthy film. But this is one of those rare occasions where an interesting idea with mostly good but few great elements is elevated into the must-see category by virtue of having a singular quality. It also marks the second time this month that I have reviewed an Asian film that should have gotten more legitimate Oscar attention, the Japanese film “Confessions” being the first. In the Case of Min-sik Choi, the Academy's snub seems more glaring because he has crafted a character destined to haunt the psyches of every viewer who takes the ride. The other actors mentioned in the beginning of this review did the same thing. The difference is that Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) collected an Oscar while Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) and Max Cady (Robert DeNiro) were nominated as was "Blue Velvet" the film that gave us Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth. Min-sik Choi as Kyung-chul deserved at least a nomination, the Academy missed it; you should not make the same mistake. Trust me, this is one devil you are gonna want to see.