Monday, January 2, 2012


This devastating crime picture from Kim Jee-woon (the gifted Korean director of A TALE OF TWO SISTERS and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD) has a familiar enough moral -- to fight a monster is to become one -- but I can think of few forebears in such films who have equalled the unconscionable ferocity of Choi Min-sik's central performance. Choi is best-known in this country for his lead role in OLDBOY; the relentless and deadly physicality of his performance here is comparable, but he goes hellishly beyond it in every other respect.

The first produced screenplay of Park Hoon-jung, who has since become a director (THE SHOWDOWN), I SAW THE DEVIL deserves instant recognition as one of the great murder dramas, up there with IN COLD BLOOD and ZODIAC, and it's harder to watch than either of them. Like most American films made about graphically violent crime, it's magnificently photographed but, unlike them, it refuses to glamourize the dangerous and insane or their vicious acts. The only times Kim permits himself to execute truly stylistic tours de force with violent setpieces is when men alone are involved. (One, staged inside a moving taxi cab, is really extraordinary.) Though women are brutally treated in the course of the story, he is careful that we never feel complicit in the sadism directed at them; he is required to milk the suspense of their danger and dread but he does not dwell on the details of their pain. Instead he expertly arouses feelings of protectiveness and responsibility toward these female characters, one of whom (played by Kim Yoon-seo) is specifically left vulnerable by the hero's (Lee Byung-hun, also riveting) blind vendetta against the madman responsible for killing his pregnant fiancĂ©e. Some may find fault with the fact that the story telegraphs everything that is going to go wrong, and everything does, but this device also works to give the story the classical familiarity and resonance of a much-told tale, meaning that its moral has proved very hard for people to learn. If an American remake is inevitable, I think Harvey Keitel should tackle this. Lyrically scored by Mowg.

Viewed in HD via Netflix.


  1. I thought this was something of a misfire from Kim Jee-woon, his first after a great run of films. Part of the problem I thought was that the sick sadist played by Choi is a far more charismatic/interesting/identifiable character than the bland and lifeless protagonist. It is a performance that ultimately unbalances the film.

  2. Rarely has a film provoked a as strong a reaction in an audience. I saw this at one screening and when it ended people staggered to the exit. I loaned a copy of the dvd to someone at work and had them literally throw the disc at me when they returned it because it horrified them so.(I had warned them about the film and they didn't listen).
    I have met several people who didn't like it, but most people I know who've seen it never ever want to see it again.