I Saw the Devil (UK - BD RB)
Chris checks out Optimum's BD release of this Korean feature in a blind review...
Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is a twisted psychopath who has killed numerous young women but has somehow evaded capture. His latest victim, Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha), is the daughter of the retired Chief of Police and fiancé of one Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), an NIS (National Intelligence Service) agent. Kim takes it upon himself to track down the murderer and in doing so begins a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with Kyung-chul, one that will transform him into a monster every bit as dangerous as his quarry.
To say that I Saw the Devil contains disturbing material is a bit of an understatement. From the opening scenes, which depict the senseless slaughter of an innocent young woman, until its final blood-soaked moments, the film delivers a visceral experience to match all but the most harrowing of features. It depicts the sort of violence that wouldn’t be out of place in a film like Hostel or even one of the Saw movies, but it does so in a way that lacks the exploitative feeling of those films. Although the content is very graphic the camera doesn’t linger too long during the various torture sequences, leaving much of the violence to the viewer’s imagination and you’ll definitely think it’s worse than it actually is. In fact, this version of the film is actually less violent than the one many International viewers would have seen (more of that later).
Korean cinema has a solid reputation for producing uncompromising revenge thrillers, thanks largely to the success of Park Chan-wook and his ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ and Kim Ji-woon’s own features. Stylistically I Saw the Devil put me in mind of Park’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, with its stripped down narrative and raw, gritty approach. The character of Soo-hyeon shares much in common with the protagonists of Park’s features, in so much as he commits ever-escalating acts of violence in his pursuit of vengeance, each and every one of which edges him closer to becoming the very thing he despises. It’s interesting to note the pronounced change in Kim Soo-hyeon over the course of the film, as he shifts from a loving character who engages in playful telephone conversations with his fiancé, to a withdrawn, cold-hearted character who distances himself from others and commits heinous acts of violence.
The Park link continues with the presence of one Choi Min-sik, who is probably my favourite Korean actor thanks to his ability to almost humanise the deranged lunatics he often plays. This performance isn’t quite the tour de force that was Oldboy’s Oh Dae-su, but Choi is always incredibly watchable. I’m less familiar with Lee Byung-hun, having only seen in in JSA, The Good, the Bad, the Weird and the G.I. Joe movie (no, I still haven’t seen A Bittersweet Life, consider me chastised), but he puts in an effective turn as a man torn between retaining his humanity and his need to seek bloody retribution for the loss of a loved one.
A little bit of research revealed that there are two versions of I Saw the Devil: International and Korean. This disc includes the Korean cut of the film, which is marginally less gory than the International cut but runs slightly longer overall thanks to a few additional scenes here and there. Although I haven’t seen the International cut I did manage to track down a useful webpage that details the main differences between the two versions, with accompanying images and audio. The page can be found here, but it contains major plot spoilers. It would seem that the International cut clarifies certain plot points that are only hinted at in the Korean version of the film, but while it is more violent overall it actually has less of the graphic sexual content found in the Korean version. It would seem that each has their merits and an ideal release would marry both versions of the film, but that’s one for the fan editors out there.
Optimum's release of I Saw the Devil arrives with a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer (1080/24p AVC) that looks nothing short of marvellous. I was initially a little worried that the film had been cropped as IMDb and every other Blu-ray site lists the aspect ratio as 2.40:1, but the IMDb is notorious for getting aspect ratios wrong (especially on foreign films) and it's likely that the other sites just got their information from there. In any event the Korean three-disc DVD release is presented at 1.85:1, as is the German Blu-ray release, so I'm reasonably happy that what we have here is correct.
Anyway, getting back to the quality of the transfer I'm happy to report that the level of detail is absolutely fantastic, with facial and fabric textures displaying superb clarity. During the opening shots there were times when I swear I could have reached out and run my fingers through Oh San-ha’s hair, so lifelike did it appear on screen, and the snowflakes almost looked like you could reach out and grab them. The killer’s dingy workshop is similarly blessed, with rusty, grimy pipework, grates and floors that are the stuff of nightmares. The palette leans towards the cooler end of the spectrum, but there are some nice bright primaries here and there and colours are extremely well-rendered in general. Blacks aren’t what I’d call reference level, but this seems to have more to do with the shooting style than any deficiency in the transfer, and shadow detail is generally very pleasing. No significant visual issues presented themselves during normal viewing and even close inspection of the screen captures on this page didn’t reveal any egregious edge enhancement or filtering (there is a fine layer of grain present throughout). This Blu-ray is a beautiful presentation of a visually striking film.
I Saw the Devil features a dark, brooding soundtrack in either DTS-HD Maser Audio 5.1 or LPCM 2.0 (both Korean). I went with the multi-channel offering for this review and was treated to a genuinely atmospheric experience that perfectly captured the tension of the piece. Music plays a big part in crafting said tension, presenting numerous moody cues that evoke real feelings of suspense, although a few pieces are a little too melodramatic and do the film a disservice. There’s isn’t a huge amount of discrete channel utilisation either, but there are one or two moments where a voice can be hard in one of the surrounds, or a vehicle transitions from one speaker to another. The sub isn’t really called upon to do anything particularly strenuous, but it does provide subtle reinforcement during the film’s livelier moments. Dialogue is well placed in the mix, never becoming lost amongst the other elements, and the English subtitles appear to offer a respectable, largely error-free translation of the original Korean dialogue. While it’s true that the audio isn’t as impressive as the visuals this is largely due to the nature of the source material, as the film isn’t the sort of action-packed action extravaganza that makes for demo material. Still it would appear that the track faithfully reproduces the theatrical experience, which is all you can reasonably ask for.
Interviews (19:05 SD): A fairly lengthy sequence of interviews with Kim Ji-woon, . Kim talks about his lead actors, specifically their differing styles, along with the more generalised aspects of filmmaking. Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun are also on hand to discuss their roles, although they have far less screen time than Kim. Even so, they have some interesting observations to make, in particular Choi’s comments about returning to acting after a four year hiatus.
Making of (18:12 SD): A relatively short making featurette is next on the menu. It offers everything I’ve come to expect from similar Korean features, which is to say that it takes a ‘fly on the wall’ approach rather than the more staged affairs usually created for UK and US features. However, this is actually a bit of a mixed blessing, as although the absence of self-congratulatory talking head interviews is welcome, there is a distinct lack of focus as we move from one set-up to the next. One amusing moment did stick in the mind, during which a group of giggling Korean girls are swooning over Lee Byung-hun while Choi Min-sik does his best disgruntled act for the camera.
The film's teaser trailer (00:53 SD) is also included, along with a TV spot (01:44 SD).
Although not actually penned by Kim, I Saw the Devil is another assured entry in the director’s body of work, and one that offers more than the usual run-of-the-mill thriller. Optimum’s Blu-ray release delivers a beautiful visual experience ably backed by a solid soundtrack and a small but interesting collection of supplemental material. It’s unfortunate that more of the extras from the three-disc Korean DVD release couldn’t be included, but I’m sure it was a matter of cost. At the end of the day we should probably be grateful that films like this are even seeing the light of day in high-definition the UK.
For me, I Saw the Devil happily sits alongside the underrated The Quiet Family, A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, the Bad, the Weird as an example of great Korean cinema. The performances from the principals are as strong as anything I’ve seen recently and in spite of the relatively long running time the film never drags. I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending it to fans of the director’s earlier work, Korean cinema enthusiasts, or people simply looking for a good night’s entertainment. Anyway, I’m off to finally watch that DVD copy of A Bittersweet Life that’s been gathering dust for years… Can we have that on Blu-ray next please?
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 9th May 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Korean, LPCM 2.0 Korean
Extras: Interviews, Making of, Teaser Trailer, TV Spot
Easter Egg: No
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Cast: Choi Min-sik, Lee, Byung-hun,
Length: 144 minutes
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