I Saw the Devil (Angmareul boatda, 악마를 보았다) is a South Korean thriller released in 2010. We’ve only watched a handful of South Korean movies thus far, but the conclusion we’ve come to is that the Korean filmmakers are no less disturbed than Americans. This movie is cringe-worthy. Very well done, but horrific nonetheless.
Plot Summary: The film opens with handsome Kim Soo-hyun (Byung-hun Lee) talking (and singing) sweetly to his wife over the phone. He is a South Korean secret service agent getting ready for an operation. She is a beautiful woman stuck in her car in a snow storm waiting for a tow truck. A driver of a school bus pulls over to offer her a hand. His behavior is odd and she’s in the middle of nowhere so she politely but cautiously waves him off. Unfortunately for her, the bus driver is Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) the serial killer and she happens to be his next victim. After the grueling murder, Soo-hyun is determined to get back at the killer. He works feverishly to track down Kyung-chul. But when he finds Kyung-chul, he doesn’t just seek vengeance, he wants grizzly revenge. Rather than simply killing the serial torturer/murderer, Soo-hyeon decides to play a protracted game of cat and mouse. However, as his violent punishment of Kyung-chul continues to be administered, Soo-hyun allows his hatred to cloud his judgment and morality. As the film progress, we learn that Kyung-chul is no simple killer. He is truly a monster. This is where the film starts to get really interesting. Soo-hyun makes a handful of key judgment errors and rather than playing it safe by killing or permanently maiming Kyung-chul, he finds himself slowly losing grip of the situation and creating a scenario he can no longer control.
Min-sik Choi is brilliant as the malevolent villain. His portrayal of the unhinged bad guy mirrors his fantastic turn as the unhinged good guy in Oldboy (2003). Byung-hun Lee plays the brooding hero turned savager in his understated style (see more of him in The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)). The director, Ji-woon Kim, takes his time getting where he wants us to go, building the tension smoothly into each violent episode. There’s an artistic style to many of the scenes starting with the windshield view from inside the bus during the night drive through the snow storm. The wipers are on the intermittent setting which creates a systematic jolt every couple of seconds. This subtly sets the tension for the upcoming scene. When we see Soo-hyun’s beautiful wife in a cozy, light-bathed car cabin with snow falling softly outside, she is speaking sweet-nothings to her husband. We can almost sense that new car smell and feel the warmth of an efficient car heater, but we already know that the situation is going to turn quickly into a jarring, horrible scene.
We don’t really have many complaints. Yes, the plot could have been tighter and there were ridiculous things like characters experiencing surprisingly quick recovery after sheer brutality and bodily harm, but those relative annoyances are minor and few. This movie could technically be classified as a horror, but the director manages to blur the lines between that and a suspense thriller. It’s in this middle ground that the interesting psychology and character development occurs. If you haven’t experienced South Korean films before and you have a tolerance for scary, gory stuff, try this one out.
4 out of 5 stars.
And now, a moment with Min-sik Choi and his trusty hammers.