Fearflix 4

I Saw The Devil

South Korea 2010



‘Let us be honest. The only men who can fight are those who do it for a living or those who build their lives around fighting.’

This quote comes not from the film but an Anfield Index football podcast. Nobody on the podcast disagreed with the football pundit. The other football fans understood. The violent consist of assassins, psychopaths and voyeurs. Not all assassins kill, boxers for example, and psychopaths can be charming. The rest of us like to watch and have been doing so for the last five thousand years. Indeed, our first response to violence in art is not to flinch at the pain but to determine the good guys so we can roar at the physical damage.

I Saw The Devil is a gore revenge movie. It satisfies those that like to roar but also challenges and queries the instinct. The assassin, Kim Soo-hyeon, is a low key James Bond. He is handsome and looks great in suits, which he appears to have bought just that day. He has a gorgeous girl friend that he loves. She is killed early, so characterisation is minimal but the fake sheepskin steering wheel cover helps. Soo-hyeon also drives fast cars and he can fight. He does not have as many gadgets as James Bond but the one he does have is a cracker. Jang Kyung-chai, the psychopath, drives a bus for the local girls academy. Inevitably, his employment does not last, less than full marks to his employment advisor. Kyung-chai is old, overweight, does not wear smart clothes and the friends he does have are cannibals. When he feels like sex, he rapes someone. Despite the differences the two men become involved in a violent battle of wills and mutual revenge. Obliged to escalate the violence they have more in common than they realise, and it does not require too much imagination to view their conflict as a metaphor for the destructive and endless wars that exist in the world today.

Many of those that watch I Saw The Devil will enjoy the gore. Director Kim Jee-woon has made several horror films, so it is difficult to imagine that his intention was to make an essay on the perils of violence and our hypocrisy as voyeurs. Yet anyone who watches I Saw The Devil and enjoys the next James Bond film with the same easy conscience has missed the point.


For a gruesome exploration into the nature and perils of violence I Saw The Devil is a good place to start. Violence fulfils our need for conquest, satisfies the desire to inflict pain and fear on enemies and ameliorates our own pain and fear. If that is not enough, it feeds popcorn fantasies. Watch I Saw The Devil and it is not difficult to believe that heaven and hell in the afterlife are only there because we need a violent metaphysical fantasy to satisfy eternal grievance.

Some have described I Saw The Devil as a poetical masterpiece. I am not convinced. The film is well made, makes the viewer think and there are fine moments. The opening of the film echoes the car that drives along Mulholland Drive in the David Lynch masterpiece but the director lacks the nerve and confidence of Lynch and does not linger. It still impresses. Snow falls outside the car while the faint Korean characters of the titles, like the snow, fade and settle into the celluloid images. The opening murder that soon follows has slick fast editing and an emphasis on the female victim that will remind viewers of Psycho. The final violent confrontation in the film, though, is nowhere near as profound as it pretends. Although it is gruesome and excessive, it is a good ironical twist in a thriller but no more than that. The emotional fall out on the hero that follows is empty and predictable and undermines the doppelganger theme of the film. But these final moments do contrast well with James Bond. He cuddles a female fantasy after he has murdered half the cast.


The limitations of I Saw The Devil do not mean that it is not an exceptional product from people who have talent and imagination.   The film provides a strong sense of how violence can be used by disgruntled men to recast themselves as heroes and redefine the world around them. Violence, though, is painful, and it often inspires a reaction and escalation and more pain. People lose their tempers. In the mayhem, bystanders are affected. Both the avenging assassin and the psychopath in I Saw The Devil are responsible for the loss of innocent life. We have been here before many times, most memorably in Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.

The 1949 British film Obsession also features two men in conflict. A methodical doctor has an attractive and impeccably mannered wife. Part of the charm of the movie is that it reminds us of when the British were well mannered and they understood the subtleties of their language. The methodical doctor kidnaps the lover of his wife and keeps him prisoner for four months. He intends to kill him after an alibi has been established. The wronged husband does not hate the lover, nor does he seek revenge. The doctor is intent on murder because he wants to alter the rules of his marriage. Like the psychopath in I Saw The Devil he has a need to redefine the world around him.   There is understandable tension between the two men but throughout the four months of the imprisonment they remain cordial. The doctor has impeccable manners, like his wife, and the American values his own sense of humour. The violence in Obsession is minimal. It consists of a bullet shot meant as a warning and a failed punch. The film, though, has dark subversive themes. The police detective likes and admires the doctor, and the audience is relieved at the end of the film when the doctor escapes the death penalty. He made mistakes but deserves forgiveness.


The restraint in Obsession does not mean that the film has more subtlety than I Saw The Devil. Through their conversation the doctor and detective ask the cinema audience to think about violence and the violent in a different way. Those who watch I Saw The Devil are not guided by the dialogue.   The assassin is taciturn, and the psychopath is foul mouthed. Everyone in I Saw The Devil is inarticulate and no help. The viewer has to make his own conclusions about violence, why it exists, attracts and appals.

The doppelganger theme is apparent but the headline ‘I saw the devil and I was looking at me’ is unsatisfactory. The film offers far more than that. In I Saw The Devil it is obvious that rape is the consequence of the male gaze. This is how violent men redefine the world with which they struggle to connect. The psychopath is terrifying, and, although the prospect of additional violence is worrying, we are eager to witness the psychopath being destroyed. Recriminatory violence does not merely satisfy blood lust, it promises relief. As the film argues and international conflicts make obvious, this is an illusion. Violence not only causes physical pain and wrecks lives, the disease is infectious. The avenger and his supporters, that is the cinema audience, are not the same as the psychopath but they will become violent.

I Saw The Devil is helped by a stunning and energetic performance from Chi Min-sik as the psychopath. Min-sik will never be forgotten for his role in the hard-hitting Oldboy. Lee Byung-hun who plays the assassin is also a dancer and model. The assassin may have loved his murdered fiancée but trapped in his pristine perfection he lacks empathy. His colleague steals the gadget that will help the assassin but the hints at recompense for his efforts are not recognised by the remote hero.


The film succeeds because it is well made and we are engaged by various mysteries. These are who will win, what will these crazed individuals do next and what will the screenwriter and director dare to put into their film. One of the best scenes in the film has the least violence; by the standards of the film a severed head is inconsequential. The numbers involved in the search for a missing victim gives a stylistic edge to the scene but the expanded scale also emphasises the disproportionate impact of violence on normal lives. Violence grabs the attention and affects communities. This is the appeal for the narcissistic adolescent slayers that haunt American schools. The black humour adds little to the film but it mitigates the weakness of the actors in secondary roles. One scene echoes John Le Carré. Paid enforcers can be powerless members of a bureaucracy. To help us understand this Le Carré had his low level spies live in tower blocks on council estates. The trick is repeated in I Saw The Devil when the harassed policeman returns to his flat and meets his rebellious daughter. The ease with which the psychopath persuades a woman to accept a lift also reminds us of the willing victims in The Boston Strangler.

In a film of exceptional violence ambiguity can be a moral weakness but an artistic strength. The meaning of the boxing gloves hanging on the washing line may be personal, social or philosophical or a mix of all three but, whatever the significance, like much in the film it remains in the brain.


Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.




Stagecoach To Somewhere – More Yuletide Horror – The First Aid Room

‘There was no accident,’ said Caroline, ‘no argument with the couple in the Mercedes.’

Sergeant Thomas smiled.  She was taller and wider than Caroline who stood no more than five foot four inches. Sergeant Thomas had decided to question Caroline at her own workstation.   The sergeant faced her PC.  Caroline sat at the side of the desk.

‘I gave them a look because they were staring at me like I was an idiot,’ said Caroline.   ‘I reversed into the space next to them.’

‘They said you backed in at a dangerous speed.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Caroline.  ‘They had a new car and they were being precious, as if my little Ford Fiesta and me had no right to be there. So I gave them a look.’

‘You didn’t say…” Sergeant Thomas read out loud the list of obscene insults.  Her pronunciation was precise, unaffected by emotion.

‘I didn’t say anything at all,’ said Caroline.

‘The couple stated you were angry because you crashed your car into the wall.’

‘I barely touched the wall with the Fiesta. I doubt if there is even a scratch on my car.   I’m not very good at parking.  The wall was not easy to see.’

‘Well,’ said Sergeant Thomas, ‘you know what they say about women and parking   It’s a long drive here from London.  Why not stay in the hotel and rest after driving and working?’

‘What I do is intense.  By the time you’ve finished, they’ve had enough of you.  They don’t need me around to spoil their dinner.’

‘Were there men at this meeting?’

‘There are always more men than women.’

Sergeant Thomas leaned an arm on her chair.  Her face was close to Caroline.  For a large woman she had a kind smile.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘the men would have been disappointed, I reckon.’

Caroline had noticed that Sergeant Thomas spoke little to her colleagues, had ignored the courtesies the half dozen detectives sitting elsewhere warranted.  On the walls of the large room, there were lots of black and white photographs but also some reproductions of newspaper headlines.  The clock on the wall ticked loudly.  The police station occupied four floors of a large government building that had been nicknamed ‘the Castle’ by the locals.

Sergeant Thomas read the screen on her PC.

‘You work as a management consultant?’

‘I was attending a conference at the hotel.  I provide advice and support for organisations on how to cope with reduced budgets.’’

‘You help companies to sack people.’

‘Sometimes that has to happen,’ said Caroline.

‘We have to reduce by 20% this year.  The bosses might ask you to help.’

‘I think I’ll pass that on to someone else.’

‘Caroline, I’m talking to you here.  I didn’t take you down to the interview rooms.  I’ve done everything I can so you don’t feel like a criminal.’

‘I’m not a criminal.  I am being detained against my will.’

‘You failed a breathalyzer test and there was a serious accident.  Is that why you left the hotel, so you could drink unobserved?’

‘I had one glass of wine with my evening meal.  I didn’t actually order any wine.    I was given a free glass and I didn’t like to say no.’

‘That restaurant never gives away free alcohol.’

‘The waiter tried to impress me.’

‘Yes, men would do that,’ said Sergeant Thomas.

‘Wine or not, I barely touched the wall.’

‘I was thinking more about Constable Wood.’

‘I did not hurt the constable.’

‘He says you did.  Right now he is in the hospital claiming he’s in pain.’

‘I barely touched the wall,’ said Caroline. ‘The couple in the black car gave me a filthy look and then, just as I was thinking about straightening the Fiesta, the constable appears and slams his hand on my car.’

‘Constable Wood says that you accelerated the car, that the bumper hit him on the knees and he held on to the car to stop being dragged across the car park.’

‘These are lies.  He is working some kind of compensation claim.’

‘Well, the doctors are in no rush to decide.  You can stay here for a couple of days.  A break from the alcohol will do you no harm.’

‘I am not an alcoholic.  I drank a free glass of wine given to me by a waiter that was trying to be charming.’

‘Did you flirt with him, Caroline?’

‘I may have done.  He was charming.’

‘And quite a bit younger.’

‘Probably, yes.’

‘Well, just the thing for stress, eh?’

‘I am not suffering from stress.’

‘It doesn’t bother you taking away people’s livelihoods?’

‘I don’t make those decisions.  I talk about business efficiency.  I’m an analyst and a theorist.’

‘I bet you are,’ said Sergeant Thomas.

The sergeant looked around the almost empty room.

‘We’ve got too many desks as it is.  God knows what it will be like after more cuts.’

‘You rationalize your estate and make savings from your assets.’

‘Do we now,’ said Sergeant Thomas.

One detective left the room and Caroline watched him walk away.  She listened to the noise in the large room.  The footsteps echoed while the clock ticked loudly.  Sergeant Thomas read the PC screen.

‘It says here that you’ve suffered from depression.’

‘I had one spell after I left University.  I got over it, like most people do.  Where do you get that information?’

‘It’s amazing what you can Google.’

‘You’ve got some kind of file on me.’

‘We all have files, Caroline.’

‘I don’t want to stay here.  I don’t think you can keep me here for days against my will.’

‘I actually think I can, Caroline.  I’m trying to look after you.  You won’t go in the cells.  You can sleep in the first aid room.  There is extra space where you can work and read.  The bed is lovely and you can shower in private every morning.  You will be very comfortable.’

‘I want to speak to a solicitor.’

‘You will, when you are charged with an offence.  Let’s see if we can have you a bit more robust, first.’

That night Caroline slept in the first aid room.  She kept all her things and even used her mobile phone to tell her friends not to worry. Caroline thought about asking for help but she was not sure what her friends could do.  She decided against ringing for a solicitor because that might inspire Sergeant Thomas to lock her in one of the cells.  On the next day she read and relaxed in an armchair.  She was provided with meals and with cups of coffee and tea.  Caroline spoke to Sergeant Thomas but this time she asked the questions.  Sergeant Thomas told her that they we were waiting for reports.  After the second night in the first aid room, she had another refreshing shower and a satisfying breakfast.  Caroline spoke to Sergeant Thomas again.

‘I think we should look at my car,’ said Caroline.

Sergeant Thomas agreed and they caught the lift to the garage in the basement.  Caroline led the sergeant to the back of the vehicle.  The bumper was badly buckled and the back looked as if it had been hit a couple of times by a sledgehammer.  They walked to the front of the car.  Sergeant Thomas pointed to the small patches of dried blood.

‘This is a set up,’ said Caroline.  She walked to the back of the car again.  ‘Look, a wall couldn’t have done that.’

‘I think it did.’

The two of them returned in the lift. Caroline sat at the same desk with Sergeant Thomas.  She listened to the clock and more footsteps, conscious of how familiar they now sounded.  Sergeant Thomas interrupted her daydreaming.

‘Would you like me to play back the tape?’ said Sergeant Thomas.

‘What tape?’

‘Of the conversation we’ve just had.’

‘We’ve just sat down,’ said Caroline.

‘No, I’ve just interviewed you about the damage to the car and the blood stains.’

‘We’ve just sat down.’

Sergeant Thomas played the tape of the interview and afterwards Caroline cried but she was too embarrassed to be hysterical.

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Sergeant Thomas.


‘Somebody has to be, I suppose.’

Caroline returned to the first aid room.  The sergeant visited while she was reading.

‘I’m comfortable here,’ said Caroline.  ‘Promise me that I won’t have to spend any nights in a cell.’

‘You can use the first aid room as long as you like,’ said Sergeant Thomas.  ‘This one has been spare since the last time we lost staff.’

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