After the short-lived “Asian Horror Invasion” of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Korean filmmakers continued to steadily churn out a host of brutal and thought-provoking thrillers; thrillers that have straddled the line between pitch-black suspense and all out horror, greatly distancing themselves from the comparatively tame, supernatural horror the genre had become associated with. From grim-yet-highly-stylized procedurals like “H” and “Into the Mirror”, to the brilliant and bloody character study of “Memories of Murder”, Korea has established itself as a major exporter of highly-stylized, evocative, and, at times, controversial films that are as bloody as they are beautiful. These are visceral, disturbing films, oftentimes featuring hard-to-watch scenes that descend into the realms of torture porn, but packed with enough soul and symbolism to keep them from being lumped in with the sub-genre outright. Jee-woon Kim (“A Tale of Two Sisters”) “I Saw the Devil”, is the latest – and one of the best – examples of this extreme cinema; a boundary breaking film that is at once elegant and agonizing.
Joo-yeon sits in her disabled car by the snowy roadside awaiting the arrival of a tow truck. To pass the time, she chats with her fiancé, Dae-hoon (Byung-hun Lee), on the phone, who, as a member of the secret service, is on a protection detail, and can’t come to her aid. When a seemingly good-natured man (Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi) arrives and offers to help Joo-yeon, she politely tells him she’d rather wait for the tow truck. The man somewhat reluctantly returns to his vehicle, but returns wielding a hammer, and smashes his way into Joo-yeon’s vehicle, where he bludgeons her into unconsciousness and drags her off, leaving her vehicle by the roadside. When Joo-yeon comes to, she’s naked and chained to a post in a grungy lair, where the man proceeds to butcher her, and, in a bit of foreshadowing, we see her engagement ring ride a river of blood into a grate in the killing room’s floor.
After group of children make a gruesome discovery that leads to the recovery of Joo-yeon’s head, her father, police chief Jang (Gook-hwan Jeon) and Dae-hoon decide to track down the killer on their own, knowing full well that only they can dole out the sort of justice this mad man deserves. Using Dae-hoon’s skills as a special agent, and Jang’s connections to the police department, Dae-hoon is given the list of suspects in Joo-yeon’s murder. As he works his way through the list, his instincts point him to a loner named Kyung-chul (Choi), who lives in a remote cottage outside of Seoul. It’s there that Dae-hoon discovers all of the evidence he needs to prosecute the man. Dae-hoon tracks the killer to a greenhouse where he’s about to rape and murder his next victim. After a vicious beatdown of his target, Dae-hoon forces a tracking device down Kyung-chul’s throat, breaks his wrist, and leaves him bloodied, broken, and unconscious.
When Kyung-chul awakens, he finds an envelope full of money and assumes he’s not only being let go, but encouraged to move on. After a nasty (and awesomely staged) encounter with a pair of would-be-robbers who’ve stolen a taxi, Kyung-chul heads south, where he has his broken wrist set by a small town doctor who he then murders before attempting to rape a young nurse. Once again, Dae-hoon shows up out of nowhere, and beats Kyung-chul to a bloody pulp, culminating with him severing the killer’s Achilles tendon. Kyung-chul awakens later in the back of his ill-gotten taxi, and it is here that he begins to piece together the reasons Dae-hoon is after him and how it is he’s managed to track him. With this knowledge, Kyung-chul sets out to turn the tables on Dae-hoon, and turn him into the very monster he’s set out to destroy.
I Saw the Devil is a vicious, disturbing, and borderline misogynistic film, that sports a sadistic streak a mile wide. The violence is realistic and unflinching, the victims (for the most part) sympathetic and undeserving, and the tone of the film is one of sheer desperation. This is not a fist-pumping revenge thriller where good triumphs over evil; this is a sobering, grim, and uncompromising look at the absolute darkest recesses of human nature. If you’ve got the stomach for it, however, I Saw the Devil is an exceptionally well-made and well-acted film that features outstanding performances by its two leads (especially Choi, who imbues his character with unnervingly quiet intensity), and a compelling and thoroughly original story. Jee-woon Kim’s artful direction coupled with Mogae Lee’s cinematography makes for a gorgeous movie that belies its repulsive subject matter and will keep your eyes glued to the screen no matter how much your gut tells you to look away.
Magnolia unleashes I Saw the Devil as part of its Magnet Films imprint, and presents it on Blu-ray with a very impressive 1.85:1 transfer. The first thing you’ll notice about the film is just how colorful it is. It’s somewhat of a rarity in the genre these days to see a movie that’s not presented in the sickly green pall of the Saw franchise or the desaturated, silvered style of Se7en. This film just pops with vibrant colors, from the cool blues of the moonlit streets to the bumble-bee yellow and black school bus Kyung-chul drives. Interior scenes are lit with theatrical style washes of green and red, with extremely detailed sets that boast colorful patterns and textures, reminiscent of Kim’s Tale of Two Sisters. It’s here where the transfer’s fine detail stands out the most, with nearly three-dimensional depth and astounding clarity.
The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is rich and full, with heart-thumping bass that’s especially evident during the “action” sequences that are punctuated by a percussion-heavy score. Dialogue is a bit hushed at times (although, unless you actually speak Korean, that shouldn’t pose too much of a problem) but, for the most part, voices are clear and organic. The directional effects are exceptionally well-implemented, with lots of audio cues and atmospheric effects filling the soundfield.
Extras include a nearly a half-hours worth of deleted scenes (SD), as well as a very entertaining and informative behind-the-scenes featurette, Raw and Rough (SD). Rounding out the extras are a collection of trailers for other Magnolia releases (HD).
I Saw the Devil is a tough watch, but, if you can handle it, the reward is a truly mesmerizing and unique film. Choi’s performance, alone, is reason enough to watch, as the actor offers a master class in on-screen villainy, here. Meanwhile, the formidable combination of Kim and Lee create a gruesome-yet-gorgeous canvas upon which Choi can strut his stuff. Magnolia’s Blu-ray presentation is top-shelf stuff, offering reference quality video and audio, as a welcome collection of quality extras, making this one an easy recommendation to those with strong stomachs and sound minds