Magnolia Pictures // 2011 // 142 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // May 27th, 2011
Prey for revenge.
Korean director Kim Jee-Woon has made a name for himself over the last decade for creating thrilling, dizzying and wildly different films that each explore a new genre in a way that twists the formula just enough to make it feel like something new, from A Bittersweet Life to A Tale of Two Sisters to The Good The Bad The Weird. His latest, 2011's I Saw the Devil, offers his spin on the revenge drama and may just be his best work yet (though that's a difficult call to make, given how strong his body of work has been).
After playing in limited art house release earlier this year, the film now comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment, a studio that's quickly becoming one of the best labels for genre films.
When the wife of secret service agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) is murdered, he vows to take revenge on her killer. After narrowing down the field of suspects, he comes face to face with Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi, star of Oldboy) and the men begin a violent, horrible game of revenge. More should not be said.
Kim Jee-Woon's latest film, I Saw the Devil, currently sits at the top of my list for the best movies of 2011. The year is not yet half over, yes, and there is a good chance that it will be bumped down a spot or two by year's end, but it will certainly finish in the top three. It's a masterpiece -- albeit one I must be very careful about recommending.
This isn't a movie for everyone. No Kim Jee-Woon film is. In fact, the same could be said for a number of Korean films, particularly violent revenge dramas (and Korea pretty much has the market cornered on this genre). It's very, very dark and very, very violent. That's going to be a dealbreaker for a lot of people, and I only mention it up front to give fair warning before any readers seek it out on the basis of my whole "best of the year" opening. This is an intense, unpleasant movie in which men do horrible things to one another (and to women). I've had to apologize to my wife several times since seeing it, because I keep hinting at how great it is while, in the same sentence, telling her that viewing the film would no doubt cause her seven different kinds of nightmares. I love the movie, but I'm not willing to let my marriage suffer as a result.
Now, of course, I'm probably overselling the unpleasantness. The movie is much more than just scenes of violence and brutality. It's a haunting, sad, laser-focused meditation on the cost of revenge. This is hardly new territory for a film (again, especially coming from Korea), and while I might consider holding against I Saw the Devil the fact that it's not necessarily saying anything novel on the subject, I would be overlooking just how well it is said. Not every film has to reinvent the wheel -- it just has to make a kick-ass wheel. That's I Saw the Devil.
There are surprises in store in I Saw the Devil (many of which weren't given away in the movie's incredible trailer; if you haven't seen it, I suggest checking it out right away), so I must tread lightly and be careful not to give them away. Though Kim Jee-Woon isn't covering new ground thematically -- revenge corrupts and consumes, until the one seeking it may become as ugly as the one he is exacting revenge upon -- it's difficult to know where the movie is going at any given time. Pause for a second and reflect on how rare that is in a contemporary film. What he has succeeded in doing above all else, though, is transforming a gritty, gory grindhouse film into art. I Saw the Devil never backs down from exploring real, raw emotion -- in fact, it wears its pain so close to the surface that it becomes nearly operatic in its anger and sadness. Kim Soo-hyeon is hardly able to grieve until his mission has been completed, and the catharsis that is ultimately reached is as powerful and real as it is tainted by the bloodshed that has come along with it. There is very little release in I Saw the Devil (a recurring theme in many of the characters' lives, though the release is different for Kim Soo-hyon and Kyung-chul). It's a film in which even the monster is given a family life, and they, too, do not escape untouched from the game that the two characters are playing out. The emotional violence committed in the movie is every bit as harsh and painful as the physical violence.
I Saw the Devil arrives in a stunning 1080p Blu-ray presentation from Magnolia Home Entertainment. The film's vibrant palette is the real standout here, with rich, vibrant colors that truly pop and a lot of fine detail (look in particular at Choi Min-Sik's weathered face, which tells a story before he's uttered a single word). It's a very good-looking transfer, and a reminder that even a movie that's bleak and horribly violent can still be beautiful to look at (I'm looking at you, Saw movies). There are two lossless audio tracks available, one in Korean and one with an English dub. I didn't bother listening to the English-dubbed track, because I want to go to heaven. I can say that the DTS-HD Korean track is rock solid, offering clear dialogue and background effects while being effectively thunderous and brutal when need be. The only bonus features are a 20-minute "making of" featurette that's pretty good (and offers some insight into how a few of the film's trickier shots were pulled off) and a collection of deleted scenes (including one uncomfortably long sex scene) that were wisely cut out of the film. The scenes aren't bad taken on their own, but would have thrown off the pacing or undercut some of the movie's thematic power. You'll know what I mean when you see them.
I Saw the Devil has the potential to be a very divisive film. Some will be put off by its ugliness and violence; others will accept those elements as necessary tools in telling this particular story. Some will argue that it's a simplistic retread of everything already said in revenge thrillers (such as Park Chan Wook's Vengeance Trilogy); others will embrace it as a superior entry in that genre. For me, it's a brutal, haunting masterpiece and one of the best movies of the year.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Korean)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site