"It feels romantic to hear your voice in the snow," a young woman stranded in her car says to her fiancé on the phone. What he hears next changes his life forever, as the Samaritan who stops to help her turns out to be a serial killer, in Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil. A grisly tale of murder and revenge, the gore in this South Korean import and Sundance Film Fest premier will limit its audience to the cult of extreme horror, which is a shame, because there is more going on within the frame than visceral bloodletting. If more timid audiences could find their ways to the theater, the draw could be a great one!
The lover who overhears his girl, Ju-yeon (Oh San-ha) attacked and dragged away is Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hyun), a special agent for the South Korean government and thus better equipped than the average boyfriend to avenge his lover's death. It doesn't take him long to zero in on a suspect, Kyung-chul (Oldboy's Choi Min-sik). Soo-hyun is not interested in simple revenge. He has something much more elaborate planned, intending to make Kyung-chul suffer as much as the killer's victims have. It is a scheme he will carry out in his own time, even if it means that Kyung-chul gets to go on killing.
In a country apparently awash in serial killers, Kyung-chul stands out. For one thing, he likes variety in his murders, employing various methods to dispense of his victims. For another, there is his personality. He's petty and cranky, thin-skinned and quick to take offense; his hair-trigger temper advances his crimes as much as his pathology. In contrast, his opponent Soo-hyun is quiet and contained, his grief hidden behind a methodical demeanor. He never pauses to reflect on what he's doing, it's perhaps the one quality he shares with Kyung-chul and so it never occurs to him that in hunting the devil he is growing ever more diabolical himself.
Cinematographer Lee Mogae's elegant compositions alongside the beauty of the South Korean countryside at night, contrast with the horrific activities unfolding within the frame. Beyond aesthetics, what transports I Saw the Devil from gnarly horror film and ultraviolent thriller into the realm of romantic tragedy are those left bereft, beginning with the utterly destroyed Soo-hyun. He is not alone in his hell; his girlfriend left behind a younger sister Se-yeon (Kim Yoon-seo) and a father, Jang (Chun Kook-haun), a retired police captain. Plenty of people die in I Saw the Devil, but it is that first attack on Ju-yeon in the movie's opening minutes that reverberates through the epic 141-minute running time. The course Soo-hyun pursues only exacerbates the nightmare, but in a world where the merciless stalk the innocent, it is perfectly understandable.
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Oh San-ha, Chun Kook-haun and Kim Yoon-seo
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Screenwriter: Park Hoon-jung
Producer: Kim Hyun-woo
Genre: Horror; Korean-language, subtitled
Running time: 141 min
Release date: March 4, 2011