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I Saw the Devil and the Nature of Revenge

To Kill The Devil, You Must Become One

Spoilers Ahead for I Saw The Devil

“Revenge is for movies,” remarks Soo-hyun’s former sister-in-law to dissuade him from the destructive path he sets out on after the murder of his beloved, Joo-Yeon. I Saw the Devil is the cinematic expression of Nietzsche’s statement that whatever is done for love occurs beyond the confines of good and evil. In the illustrious history of South Korean revenge-thrillers, director Kim Jee-Woon depicts the dilemma that – in the act of successfully eradicating the devil – one must become an identical, if not greater, evil that one hopes to destroy.

 Directed by Kim Jee-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) and starring Lee Byung-hun (A Bittersweet Life) and Choi Min-sik (Oldboy), I Saw the Devil is a twisted tale of murder and revenge that steers the genre to insightful questions of moral ambiguity. The film follows NIS secret agent Kim Soo-Hyun (Lee), who pursues revenge when his wife is murdered by the heinous serial killer Jang Kyung-chul (Choi). In its exploration of the nature of revenge and the notions of justice and sin, I Saw the Devil pits two kinds of violence against one another: emotional brutality and gelid madness. But Soo-hyun’s desire manifests from his transforming pain and sadness into an obsession that will only end when Kyung-chul experiences the same depths of suffering that Joo-yeon and his other victims felt.; for there can be no better gratification or justice than in terrorizing the monstrous predator into terror-stricken prey.

Run Rabbit, Run

Catch, maim and release is the name of the game that Soo-hyun utilizes to torture his prey. One sees the quick and brutal implementation of the agony he inflicts on the potential suspects before him finding his target and would presume that he wishes to harm the perpetrator as much as he physically can. However, his brand of justice focuses more on drawing out the suffering and ensuring that the Kyung-Chul believes that he is omniscient and that nowhere he can go is safe from his cruelty. Despite the deterrence of those around him, Soo-hyun will not relent; this is his therapy. Behind this passion for retribution is a form of resentment, or a lack of forgiveness for what he thinks are his failings in protecting the one he loves.

 Soo-hyun’s actions are a coping mechanism for an injustice that he could not foresee nor have any control over. In the grander scheme of things, Kyung-Chul can be viewed as a block to Soo-Hyeong’s ability to grieve. So in prolonging his catharsis and indulging in his sadistic impulses, Soo-hyun strips himself and those affected of the opportunity to regain self-respect by enacting this cat-and-mouse game. He becomes a slave to his primal desires, manifesting a crueler chain of events that harms innocent bystanders.

The Pursuit and Death of Virtue

The morality of Soo-hyun’s revenge is quite murky, and in the strictest sense, there is no virtue in his actions regardless of his intentions and the depravity of Kyung-Chul. While the offender in question deserves the punishment and is aware of the severity of his crimes, the vigilante methodology stands outside the realm of law and, as mentioned, is a selfish measure taken by the revenger that ignores the sentiments of the victims and those affected by the crimes. In this case, it is that of Joo-yeon’s father and sister who plead with Soo-hyun to abandon his cause mainly in fear of what he is becoming. Though that isn’t to say that Soo-Hyun doesn’t produce admirable results. While the slow hand of justice and law enforcement take their time in investigating and apprehending the suspects in Joo-yeon’s murder, Soo-hyun gets two of the suspects to confess to prior crimes and he prevents Kyung-Chul from committing sexual violence – and presumed murder – of a young schoolgirl.

 But at the end of the day, revenge is simply the darker extreme of retributive punishment: it has the same purpose, motivation, and moral justification. Even if not by their hand, perhaps the victims would be satisfied with the degree of punishment that the criminal receives. Yet in this narrative, one looks past the virtuous nature of said revenge as this, in essence, is a final act of love for Soo-hyun as an atonement for his perceived failure. While Joo-yeon’s father likewise grieves at the thought that even as a member of law enforcement, he couldn’t protect his daughter, this is the driving force for Soo-hyun to commit this moral transgression. He is willing to push the boundaries of morality if it means that the killer can face a ‘just’ punishment.

Catharsis or Corruption

Nonetheless, acts of revenge often lead to cycles of violence and those who seek revenge are typically left unsatisfied or empty. As Kyung-chul’s friend Tae-joo, a murderer and cannibal, notes: “He’s our kind.” In his pursuit, Soo-hyun becomes a cold reflection of those he is hunting. However inhumane and malicious these people are, they view their behavior as justified in a type of rebellious revenge against the world they believe wronged them. Tae-joo reminisces that he and Kyung-Chul attempted to set up a militant group to fight the world. 

 As the curtain closes, Kyung-Chul appears apathetic and devoid of remorse – nothing can penetrate his inhumane exterior. But in a final deed to shatter his psyche, Soo-hyun inserts Kyung-Chul into the guillotine he would use to execute victims with the release handle hooked to the door and inserted into his mouth. But he also called Kyung-Chul’s son and parents, whom he abandoned many years ago. Soo-hyun leaves Kyung-Chul who is finally filled with fear and he attempts to warn his family as he desperately bites down on the handle but they accidentally open the door thereby executing him. As the pained screams of the family wash over Soo-hyun, he sees inside himself at last – all of the anger, sadness, and insanity. The grief and remorse he has bottled up surges out in a pained cry, almost as though the realization of his actions has caught up to him. His revenge is complete, but the cycle of violence continues.

 I Saw the Devil is available on Blu-ray and to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

I Saw The Devil 2011 Magnet Pictures Official Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Adam Matthews is a writer at heart who wants to share his love of the peculiar and strange with others. Having completed an MFA in Creative Writing from the American College Dublin and an M.Phil in Screenwriting from Trinity College Dublin, he hopes to carve a path to making storytelling his career. If he were to be reincarnated, he would want to be a 1940s LA private investigator.