The film grips immediately when Kyung-Chul(Min-Sik) brutally murders a young woman who has broken down in the snowy Korean countryside and savagely dismembers her, redistributing her body parts in a local river. The young woman in question happens to be the fiance of Soo-Hyun(Byung-Hun), a special forces agent who upon discovering the crime enters into a vengeful catatonic state. Due to his connections, Soo-Hyun manages to obtain a list of suspects and violently works his way through them until he tracks down Kyung-Chul. Unusually the expected climax of the film occurs about about third of the way in when Soo-Hyun confronts Kyung-Chul in his greenhouse lair, resulting in Kyung-Chul being incapacitated and fed a high-tech tracking device as well as being injured but not incapacitated by his assailant. What follows is a thrilling cat and mouse chase that spans the rest of the film's ample 144 minute running time as Soo-Hyun tortures Kyung-Chul in act of poetic justice.
Ji-Woon proves to be an extremely competent as director ensuring the pursuit and exchanges between Soo-Hyun and Kyung-Chul thrill the audience and compel you to see the task through to the end just as you know Soo-Hyun will. More compelling is Soo-Hyun's methodical torture of his target even as Kyung-Chul continues to try and appease his apparent addiction to rape and murder by targeting other victims. Soo-Hyun's constant interrupting of Kyung-Chul's attempted attacks provide just enough conflict between the two without spoiling the spectacular climax as Soo-Hyun attempts to exact his final revenge. However the drawback of this focus on the two main characters does leave the Police force's minimal attempts to enforce the law looking feeble and a bit silly and the space between the gripping intro and tremendous ending does feel a little stunted.
The most fascinating thing about I Saw the Devil are the performances and exposition of the two main characters. At the beginning of the film, the roles of hero and villain are quite clear but as the brutality wears on, a moral ambiguity is introduced causing the two characters to blur together. Soo-Hyun's cold and emotionless delivery of violence create a real anti-hero wheras Kyung-Chul becomes an almost sympathetic character through his perpetual suffering. The jaw-dropping climax somewhat restores the balance between the two but the manipulation of morality is the lasting impression the film has on the viewer.
I Saw the Devil blends classic thriller elements with the stylish ultra-violence of 21st Century cinema to create a near perfect film. However, it is ultimately let down by it's over-long running time of nearly two and a half hours. This definitely lends an epic feel to the film but the middle act slumps as a result and the scene where Kyung-Chul visits his cannibal buddy could certainly have been cut as the momentum really suffers in this portion. The more patient fan of Asian cinema will be rewarded greatly by sticking with the film but casual viewers may find the film inaccessible. I, however, was fully gripped and for me I Saw the Devil sits rightfully amongst the best films of 2011.
4 Stars ****
What did you think of I Saw the Devil? Is it too long for a subtitled film?