Choi Min-sik did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Kyung-chul in I Saw The Devil.
Choi Min-sik, who I last reviewed in his terrific no holds barred performance in Oldboy, plays the serial killer of the film and certainly has a somewhat different approach here. Choi has a terrific screen presence and he owns the film in the same way as he did in Oldboy. This time though he does not portray the loopy hero of Oldboy, instead he plays the extremely sinister murderer here. Choi is horrifying here in his two early scenes where he murders two women. Choi's manner of portraying the killer is particularly frightening because of how much he downplays these scenes, especially the second scene where Kyung-chul actually sort messes up his way as he struggles to find his murder weapon in the back seat of his car while his soon to be victim looks on.
Choi is especially disturbing because he doesn't show the murders as anything special to Kyung-shul they are just kind of a day to day thing for him from the casual manner he approaches them. Choi has Kyung-shul go about it in a slow not all rushed way he smokes he takes his time, and he never seems to rush. Choi by taking this approach is especially chilling because it is clear that he has done this before, many times in fact, and to certain degree it has become basically a routine for him. There is a soullessness in Choi's performance that is quite unnerving. The only time he seems all that active is when he goes in his attack where the inner monster comes out and the full brutality of Kyung-shul is seen, and that all he is quite obviously a maniac.
Choi makes Kyung-shul especially off putting because of how nonchalant he is in portraying the killing. This is actually trickier than it sounds as it could be played wrong and it would seem just like a disinterested actor, Choi handles it brutally well in really allowing us to see that there is a history of this killer and it is a very long one indeed. What compels him to commit such atrocities is never exactly stated in the film, but Choi alludes to it well in his portrayal. Firstly through just that complete lack of empathy in his performance, there is such a harrowing quality Choi brings to the role that paints Kyung-shul as a truly hollow man. Choi as well suggest that in Kyung-shul there is a hatred in him toward women that Choi does not shy away from showing it to be as despicable as it is.
The tables are turned on Kyung-shul though when the secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) tracks him down. The twist is though when the agent finds him he doesn't kill the serial killer instead to act revenge he purposefully lets him live to keep torturing him. As Choi so brilliantly changed in Oldboy whenever his character had to massively change very quickly, he is just as efficient here although the change this time is far from permanent. Choi changes a bit showing Kyung-shul's confusion at the situation more than anything, but also a bit of a revelation as he almost seems firmer in his resolve to do whatever he feels likes, and again Choi is scary as hell when he intimidates a doctor and nurse shortly after having been treated by them. Kyung-shul's joy is short lived though as the agent makes it clear the first beat down Kyung-shul was only the beginning.
Choi Min-sik is terrific as Kyung-shul stops being the hunter and instead is instead the hunted. Choi is very effectively as he shows that Kyung-shul quickly loses his confidence of before and increasingly becomes a man filled with desperation. Choi is able to bring the fears alive in him, and interestingly as he starts to show him as the mouse begins to at least to allude to some humanity although only in its most basic form. Kyung-shul becomes a frightened man himself, and Choi brings this fear alive brilliantly by making it a counterpoint to the earlier behavior of the killer. When the killer had the power there was nothing but the hollow inhuman shell, but as soon as he faces being the victim Choi believably changes him into a cowering with honest human emotion.
After learning of how the agent is keeping tabs on him Choi again transforms Kyung-shul once again. Kyung-shul gains his confidence back again, but he keeps his humanity, though not in a good way. Choi portrays Kyung-shul at his fiercest as he determines to specifically target the agent for revenge. Choi now turns him into a very imposing villain and makes it clear that Kyung-shul is not a man you want to give a task to. Miin-sik is marvelous just to watch as he shows Kyung-shul become a man entirely in his element and is truly disturbing as portrays the extent he will go to seek his revenge. Kyung-shul's final murder is very personal suddenly and Choi shows the difference in the intense manner he portrays both Kyung-shul's anger and glee in his new situation.
This brings Kyung-shul to the final scene when he and the agent finally face off man to man by this point both having a great deal of blood on their hands. Although Lee Byung-hun is fine as the agent the scene absolutely belongs to Choi the entire time as he gives the full portrait of a man who is coping with the fact that he going to be killed very soon. It is all in one scene but Choi runs through the emotions powerfully without a moment of disconnect between the phases for Kyung-shul. He shows a whimpering man pleading for his life as he sees it closing around him. Choi brings this to him becoming defiant and very chilling as Kyung-shul basically tells the agent that all of his efforts have been a waste, and Choi succeeds in bringing the central theme about the hollow nature of revenge to life. At last though he is left as a man holding on to life literally by his teeth, and he loses that last ounce of defiance he had left.
The very last scene is an amazing scene even though you get none of the gratification one would expect when the villain of a film gets his comeuppance. Choi holds nothing back and brings the unflinching horror of the moment through his performance. It is one last moment for Kyung-shul as Choi shows him reduced to be the opposite of what he was at the beginning. Where he was at first a soulless killer Choi leaves him as just a ball of emotions of sadness and pain as he struggles not only not to die, but as well to spare his family from seeing what the end of his monstrous actions has brought. It is an unforgettable scene, and it works because Choi absolutely earns the moment through his portrayal of Kyung-shul's transformation throughout the film. This is a tremendous performance by Choi Choi as he is a terrifying, imposing, and disturbing villain, while never once failing to meet the needs of the extreme emotional changes of his character.