I reviewed I Saw the Devil back in 2014 for my Indie Horror-thon, my very first horror review marathon during which I reviewed my favorite (at the time) indie horror flicks. Looking back, my impression of the film hasn’t changed much. So I’m just going to move right into my dissection of the film’s core themes; definitely be sure to read my original review of the South Korean psychological horror film here before continuing this post.
I Saw the Devil is still a darkly vicious film that could have easily devolved into a mindless celebration of revenge and violence. Thankfully, Kim Jee-woon’s psychological horror tale is anything but a celebration of violence (otherwise it wouldn’t have been included on this list).
Kim Soo-hyeon: I will kill you when you are in the most pain. When you’re in the most pain, shivering out of fear, then I will kill you. That’s a real revenge. A real complete revenge.
Rather than allowing his protagonist Kim Soo-hyun to take pleasure in torturing the man who brutally slaughtered his wife, the game of catch, torture, and release backfires and becomes increasingly numbing– as viewers likely feel similarly nauseated by the two men’s homicidal spiral. Unlike many other revenge-centric narratives, I Saw the Devil doesn’t aim to be fun at all. And it isn’t. Watching the serial killer Kyung-chul experience pain (but no remorse) for his psychopathic misdeeds only further underscores the futility of revenge.
I’m reminded of the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs, which I still contend is the worst horror film that I have ever watched all the way through. Straw Dogs revolves around a Mississippi native Amy returning to her hometown with her new husband David in order to rebuild her deceased father’s house and to allow David to finish writing his book.
David is immediate taunted by the hillbilly locals, who flaunt more traditionally masculine features (they’re muscular and emotionless; also they hunt) and perceive David as an elitist outsider. When one of the locals, Amy’s high school boyfriend, corners and rapes Amy, the film suddenly positions David as an effete pansy who must muster the toxic masculinity festering within, be a man, and avenge his wife. It’s a tedious viewing experience with a dangerously regressive message.
I Saw the Devil could have made the same mistakes, but didn’t. And this is where I should warn you that the remainder of this post requires discussing the film’s final act, so please be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD.
In the final act, Soo-hyun’s plan to draw out Kyung-chul’s vicious death has backfired. After Kyung-chul is able to escape and remove the tracking device that Soo-hyun planted on him, Kyung-chul devises a plan to target Soo-hyun’s father and sister and turn himself into the police before Soo-hyun is able to capture him. His plan is nearly successful as Kyung-chul locates and tortures Soo-hyun’s father and sister.
Soo-hyun finally catches up to Kyung-chul, captures and tortures him one last time, and hooks him up to a guillotine, which is triggered when Kyung-chul’s parents and son arrive home to visit him. Soo-hyun listens to Kyung-chul’s death and his family’s horrified reaction from an audio transmitter and dissolves into tears, and the film ends with a close-up of his nervous breakdown.
Kyung-chul: Hey. Cut the bullshit. You already lost. You think you got me? Huh? Fuck you. I don’t know what pain is. Fear? Don’t know that either. There’s nothing you can get from me. So… You already lost. Got that?
In psychology terms, what Soo-hyun experienced is an extreme type of PTSD/grief avoidance coping (sometimes called escape coping), which is a maladaptive coping mechanism that involves avoiding or denying the stressor in one’s life. People met with grief or trauma, like Soo-hyun, may experience avoidance coping as a means of protecting themselves against the pain associated with facing psychological harm or discomfort head-on.
Instead of grieving for his murdered wife in a healthy way, Soo-hyun convinces himself that if he can make his wife’s murderer feel pain, that he won’t have to. When he discovers the evidence required to prosecute Kyung-chul, he doesn’t turn it over to the authorities– nor does he simply kill Kyung-chul. He draws out the violence to make the sociopathic killer suffer. But Soo-hyun is the one who suffers, and Kyung-chul exploits this fact by reminding Soo-hyun of it throughout their final confrontations.
I Saw The Devil director Kim Jee-woon understood something that the creators of the Straw Dogs remake most certainly didn’t: that violence is never a means to an end. Violence begets more violence. The more Soo-hyun fought against the impulse to recognize and address the turmoil of losing his wife, the more devastating it was when he finally had to.
As I mentioned in my original review of I Saw the Devil– when you gaze into the abyss, the devil gazes back into you.