Before The Raid 2: Berandal, I Saw the Devil was my benchmark for violence in cinema — that is, violence in good cinema. Barring Takashi Miike, in other words. This is a Korean film from critically acclaimed director Kim Jee-Won, of A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life. If you happened to be disappointed by A Bittersweet Life, this could be considered a kind of redux, with Byung-hun Lee once again taking up the vengeance mantle in grand Korean fashion.
I don’t know why those penninsulatin’ fools decided ‘vengeance’ would be a national theme, but I’m glad they did. It’s given us some of the best from that market — Lady Vengeance, The Man from Nowhere — hard-hitting, emotional, visually opulent films.
I Saw the Devil is the ugliest of the bunch, but just as richly colorful as anything by Chan-Wook Park. Revenge is once again a damning pursuit, and we understand why on the microcosmic level. This is world-building — the sadistic Choi-Min Sik (everyone’s favorite badguy) stabs and stabs in that taxi, doing his best to cover every last spot on those windows with flowing red. It’s a violent, unforgiving world, one that borders on cartoon, but never tips over.
It comes close and culminates in the cannibal farm, but this is where the best singular moment of action happens, when he kicks that shotgun a half-second before it goes off.
The story is actually interesting and fresh, given the cultural context. It’s a bit of a chess game, but instead of headgames, it’s more like head-and-rock-games. So whatever novelty is happening in the plot, the violence is so impressive, it secures a lizard attention and keeps you staring — the perverse desire to see just how they’re gonna top that last one.
These two elements may be contradictory, so here’s to the power and attraction of violence. Sweet, sweet ultraviolence.