I Saw The Devil
The three South Korean films featured at Fantastic Fest–all among this reviewer’s festival favorites–are all thoughtful, reflexive analyses of violence, revenge, and the institution of family. The Housemaid internalized the machinations of torture and revenge flicks into a psychological class war between a willfully single middle-class girl and a exorbitantly wealthy family. Bedevilled depicted an unbearably horrific island village that stood as a persuasive metaphor for the historic subjugation of women within family units and then showed a woman gruesomely and ruthlessly freeing herself from those bonds. I Saw The Devil, the most graphic but least thematically complex of the three, upends the conventions of the serial-killer-thriller to craft a tragic portrait of vengeance’s vicious cycle and the personal decline of one man after losing his fiancee.
Devil begins with Kyung-chul, infamous and evasive serial killer, brutally killing secret agent Dae-hoon’s fiancee, Joo-yeon. Upon discovering her body, Dae-hoon takes a leave of absence from the police force to track down the Kyung-chul and exact bloody revenge. From here the film plays against expectations, placing Dae-hoon and Kyung-chul’s first confrontation within the first act. Dae-hoon quickly neutralizes his adversary, saving an intended victim at the same time, and leaves him bloodied and broken, but alive. The balance of power immediately shifts and Dae-hoon begins his mission to thwart Kyung-chul’s fetishistic dismembering and lay down severe reprimand after severe reprimand.
Probably the most cogent analysis of the film possible, uttered by a Fantastic Fest audience member as the credits rolled, is simply “holy shit”. Devil is a visceral, uncompromising, and completely captivating revenge flick. Like a trimmed down, efficient Inglourious Basterds, Devil forces the viewer to consider the more delightfully cathartic moments of the film. Dae-hoon certainly descends into monstrosity, but he is also fantastic at kicking ass, and fans of ass-kicking will respond to every punch with guilty exuberance.
But it’s not just Dae-hoon that will earn audience sympathy. If Kyung-chul, a horrible, despicable person if there ever was one, didn’t embody the role of victim so well, director Kim Ji-Woon’s thesis on violence wouldn’t be nearly as effective. When Dae-hoon is on top–which isn’t always, to be clear–he seem monstrous only insomuch as Kyung-chul seems pathetic. The success of the film is shouldered completely by these two characters, and Dae-hoon is as fascinating and watchable a hero as Kyung-chul is a villian. This is an awfully graphic film, but for those who can stomach it, I Saw The Devil continues South Korea’s legacy of outstanding revenge films.