December 7, 2010 – 3:54 am

From A Tale Of Two Sisters to The Good, The Bad, The Weird, director Kim Ji-woon now tackles serial killers in I Saw The Devil (2010) but finds the Korean censors much more than he bargained for. Stephen Tan reviews.

A woman, Joo-yeon, is stranded on a lonely road one night when her car breaks down. Schoolbus driver Gyeong-cheo swings by and offers to help. When the woman refuses his help, Gyeong-cheo smashes the car, bludgeons the woman senseless and brings her to his home where he butchers her up. Later, some youngsters find a ear; a search is mounted and the woman’s decapitated head is discovered.

At the funeral, the Joo-yeon’s fiance, special agent Soo-hyeon, regrets not being with her when she was attacked and promises to make life hell for the murderer. There are four suspects and Soo-hyeon goes after them. The first is watching a porno film when Soo-hyeon breaks into his apartment. Soo-hyeon belongs to that shoot-first-talk-later school and he hammers the suspect in the genitals before deciding that this is not the killer. The second, Soo-hyeon knocks him down from the motorbike and beats him up by the roadside. In the meantime, Gyeong-cheo continues with his killings.

Soo-hyeon manages to locate the third suspect through Gyeong-cheo’s son. Visiting Gyeong-cheo’s home, he finds cabinets filled with women’s handbags, bras and shoes. He also finds his Joo-yeon’s ring. Gyeong-cheo is raping a schoolgirl he has abducted but is interrupted when Soo-hyeon shows up. During the fight, Soo-hyeon breaks Gyeong-cheo’s hand but stops short of killing the man when he has the chance. Instead, he stuffs a transmitter into the unconscious Gyeong-cheo’s mouth.

Looking for help, Gyeong-cheo stops a taxi and later kills the driver and another passenger inside. He only realises the two men were killers when he discovers the real driver’s body in the trunk. Gyeong-cheo stops at a private clinic for medical help and terrorises the nurse when he orders her to strip. Soo-hyeon, who has been tracking Gyeong-cheo, stops the killer by bashing his head with an oxygen cylinder and then cuts one of his Achilles tendon. He is then left in an empty car park.

Gyeong-cheo meets up with his friend, who is another serial killer. Talking about Gyeong-cheo’s attacker, the friend sums up the situation: “He must be related to one of the dead girls’ family. Who the hell would do that if he’s not? He joined our club too. He’s enjoying it just like you feel excited when hunting. Catch it and release it. Catch it and release it. He’s playng the hunting game now. It looks like you got caught really bad this time. This guy went crazy after losing his bitch. Monster appeared.”

After dinner, while the friend is not around, Gyeong-cheo has sex with the woman who is at the house. Later that night, Soo-hyeon attacks Gyeong-cheo’s friend just as he is about to slice another woman victim. Chaining up the friend, Soo-hyeon says: “The order is arms, legs and head. Right? I’ll do exactly the same as how you guys did. Don’t worry about it, I won’t do it more than that. You crazy psycho fuckers.” In the ensuing fight, Soo-hyeon beats up Gyeong-cheo and his friend; who are later sent to the hospital.

In the hospital Gyeong-cheo overhears Soo-hyeon talking about the transmitter; he escapes; removes the transmitter and now starts to taunt Soo-hyeon. Gyeong-cheo kills Joo-yeon’s father and badly beats up Joo-yeon’s sister before giving himself up to the police in the middle of the road. Soo-hyeon drives by; snatches Gyeong-cheo off the road and brings him to a deserted house.

Tied up, Gyeong-cheo continues his taunting and Soo-hyeon’s response - he stabs Gyeong-cheo in the cheek with a spike. Gyeong-cheo says: “You’ve played with me enough so stop it son of a bitch. Hey, stop talking bullshit now. You lost already. You think you’ve played with me till now? Bullshit. I don’t know what pain is. Fear? Don’t know that too. There’s nothing you can get out of me. So, you lost already. You know that?”

Just before leaving the tied up Gyeong-cheo, Soo-hyeon says: “I wish you still feel pain even after you die.” As he walks away, Gyeong-cheo’s family arrives. Soo-hyeon has rigged the door in such a way that when the door opens, it will release a home-made guillotine on Gyeong-cheo.

The title “I Saw The Devil” is an allusion to the line, “when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you”. Only in this case, Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) not only turns into a cold-hearted vigilante, but into an angel of death. While the film’s serial killers are psychotic and a-moral, Soo-hyeon’s leaving the final act of violence to Gyeong-cheo’s family and thus shifting the burden of blame away from himself is bewildering, to say the least. Perhaps his crying at the end indicates some remorse over his actions but then again, it could be the man crying in relief as his “ordeal” is now over.

More controversial is the film’s misogynism, and violence in general. The film was shown uncut in various film festivals.

According to, on July 27, 2010, the Korea Media Rating Board applied the (most) restrictive rating of 19+ to I Saw The Devil. The movie was re-edited and submitted. On August 4, 2010, the Rating Board again applied the 19+ rating. Because of this, the advance press screening was delayed from August 5 to August 11. The movie was then re-edited and submitted for the third time. On August 11, the Rating Board gave the film the less restrictive “teenager restricted (18+)” rating. The 19+ rating would have limited the release of “I Saw The Devil” in Korea because theatres would not show the film.

The final submission to the Rating Board contained a total of 1:30 seconds cut from the first submitted version. The production company then edited a total of seven more scenes in fear of inspiring copy cat crimes. Scenes including cannibalism were edited out in particular. The dinner scene with Choi Min-Sik and his serial killer friend originally had body parts on their dinner table, but was modified in the final release to have beef. It is this edited version that is shown theatrically and out on home video.

Maybe because of the cuts, compared to Jim Jin-Won’s The Butcher (2007) or even Kevin Ko’s Invitation Only (2009), the violence in I Saw The Devil isn’t as in-your-face as it could have been. There are no direct shots of Gyeong-cheo bashing the heads of his victims and the cutting up of bodies are either left offscreen or through sound effects - for instance, the sound of the guillotine dropping on a woman.

Still, one winces at the sight of Gyeong-cheo repeatedly hitting the heads of his victims until they become a bloody mess (even if it is shot from the back); the scenes of Gyeong-cheo tormenting his helpless victims before he kills them are terrifying - especially the scene where Gyeong-cheo has the schoolgirl in his clutches - and, for gore fans, the standout scenes are when Soo-hyeon cuts Gyeong-cheo’s Achilles tendon and when Soo-hyeon plunges a spike into Gyeong-cheo’s cheek. Sticking a knife through somebody’s hand or someone’s throat seems passe though.

While director Kim Ji-woon has mixed genres to good effect in the past - ghost story and family (or fairy tale and family) in A Tale Of Two Sisters and a Korean spaghetti hybrid like The Good, The Bad, The Weird - here it’s Silence Of The Lambs meets Death Wish though the result is a bit disappointing, in the sense that the Soo-hyeon character isn’t fully fleshed out. Lee Byung-hun was diabolically enigmatic in The Good, The Bad, The Weird but as the special agent here, he is quite overshadowed.

Old Boy actor Choi Min-sik is so charismatic that he makes Gyeong-cheo so much larger than life. There may not be much of a back story to explain what he is but as a screen psycho, Gyeong-cheo is right up there next to Hannibal Lecter. He may melancholically strum his guitar after one of his killings but he is single-minded and all-business when he has a victim in hand. And there is a simplicity in his utterances that can be touchingly innocent, slightly amusing and downright scary. For example, after being knocked unconscious, Gyeong-cheo wakes up to find an envelope of money on his chest. He mutters: “This guy’s a fucking psycho.”

Revenge is so much sweeter when it is personally executed by the wronged person. At the end of The Godfather, although Michael Corleone didn’t lift a finger himself, the revenge collage was cathartic and satisfying. Not so in I Saw The Devil.

By not finishing off Gyeong-cheo himself, the film robs audiences of their one great cheer. While there’s nothing in the film that is a critique of the revenge motif, by having Gyeong-cheo’s family do the dirty work, so to speak, it does not absolve anyone of anything. Somehow it doesn’t quite gell if this is to show that Soo-hyeon has degenerated to such an extent that he even drags Gyeong-cheo’s (innocent) family into the mess. The overall effect, if nothing else, unfortunately leaves a dissatisfied viewer. But what’s really scary is that, as I Saw The Devil indicates, there are scores of serial killers running loose, many posing as taxi or schoolbus drivers.

Note: The I Saw The Devil DVD (Showbox) is banned in $ingapore.

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