I SAW THE DEVIL is often linked to Chan-wook Park’s revenge trilogy. While it does explore many of the same themes, especially SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE, which also stars Min-sik Choi as the psychopathic killer, I SAW THE DEVIL continues down a deeper and darker path. It’s message is there are inhuman predators all around us and we are simply prey; and when we cease to become prey, we become predator.
Soo-hyeon, played by Byung-hun Lee, who also stars in J.S.A. and Kim’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD, is a secret service agent avenging the brutal murder of his fiance, Ju-yeon (San-ha Oh.) He soon identifies Choi as the killer and begins stalking him; periodically catching him, torturing him and patching him up, only to let him go to pursue him again.
There is plenty of disturbing violent imagery in I SAW THE DEVIL, but Min-sik Choi’s portrayal of killer Kyung-chul is deeply unsettling. In my opinion, his performance ranks as one of the best psychopaths on film. Choi is probably best known for the movie OLD BOY, and for playing a child killer in SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE. As chilling as that performance is, it pales in comparison to Kyung- chul.
As I watched Kyung chul, I thought of what Quint says in JAWS about the shark having dead eyes. Kyung-chul moves through the movie with the same ease as the shark through the ocean. He is a supreme predator completely within his element. Every setback seems only temporary. He is always moving forward, devouring everyone in his path with a dispassionate bemusement. Even as he butchers Ju -yeon on the cold basement floor, and she pleads for her life, he is detached. He seems bored with so many easy targets. He appears to almost welcome the challenge of Soo-hyeun.
Soo-hyeun wants vengeance. However, he doesn’t want Kyung-chul in jail or even to kill him. He wants to know why. He wants an answer he can understand. He wants Kyung-chul to suffer; to feel the same fear and pain Ju-yeon felt, that he feels. No matter the final outcome, Soo-hyeun will never get what he wants. Kyung-chul and the other predators scattered throughout the film, feel nothing. They are a malevolent void, and at the end, Soo-hyeun realizes he now carries a part of that void within himself. There is no atonement, resolution, forgiveness or even oblivion at the end of I SAW THE DEVIL, only the hungry abyss of loss.
You can find Kim McDonald on Twitter: @dixiefairy