Kim Jae-hoon’s feature debut, Devils, left me with a few mixed feelings by the second half. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the marketing savviness it takes to push a crime thriller such as this one, with a campaign that hints at the film being a number of things if you’re used to certain types of genres.
What starts as a gut-wrenching crime procedural centered on Seoul’s Major Crimes unit’s efforts to bring a gang of dark web serial killers to justice is brought full circle with an engrossing twist on the “body-swap” genre. It’s more psychological than anything, with dogged detective Jin-hyeok (Oh Dae-hwan) set on solving a series of gruesome murders at an abandoned hideouts where the internal rooms and halls are all adorned in neon paint and ultraviolet light.
The incident leads to another tragedy days before an anonymous tip soon leads the unit to another hideout where sadistic killer and gang member Jae-hwan (Jang Dong-yoon) is in hiding. A high-speed chase goes afoot into a wooded forest where Jin-hyeok and Jae-hwan end up tumbling down a cliff, resulting in a search party for the two that leads nowhere as the killing somehow continues. With a month passing since their disappearance, however, Jin-hyeok suddenly reappears with Jae-hwan in custody, both incapacitated and eerily, things don’t really appear as they seem. Somehow, Jin-hyeok believes his body has been switched into Jae-hwan’s, forcing him to cope with Jae-hwan, now in Jin-hyeok’s body, living with his wife and daughter, and with no choice but to do Jae-hwan’s bidding if he is to save his family.
Making matters worse for Jin-hyeok is the idea of trying to convince his steadfast and unimpressionable colleagues that he is who he says so. His only hope at this point is his young partner, Min-sung (Jang Jae-ho) who is eventually persuaded to help Jin-hyeok through his predicament, thanks to a few clues and some introspection dealing in matters of questionable scientific practices and the prominent fictions therein. The major crux of Jin-hyeok’s ordeal by this point, is that he must now use Jae-hwan’s likeness in order to infiltrate his now scattered gang and bring them to justice so that he can even with them for selling him out.
Solid performances by leads Dae-hwan and Dong-yoon are enough for Devils to rest on its requisite packaging for sufficient genre thrills and entertainment. Blood, gore, and sadistic torture fixtures are par for the course as the film’s target audience, as well as minor additions of static macabre imagery to illustrate Jin-hyeok’s afflicted state with being in Jae-hwan’s body, which definitely lends something inescapably supernatural to the film’s overall presumptive tone. The most interesting part about Devils there is how the film keeps you guessing, right down until the film’s final forty minutes where the pieces all start to fall into place. At this juncture, you would be wise not to get too attached with any particular characters lest you be disappointed. I will say that the second half of the film plays a little too fast and loose with the flashback edits which makes the task of keeping up with the timeline of events a little bit jarring.
A near-perfect freshman assembly for the first-time director in Devils does manage to find its footing along the way, thankfully. What you get is a ghastly thriller that can mostly stand on its own thanks to palpable writing, and an enthralling twist that does the work to make you consider all the possibilities, all profiling our two foremost characters with nuanced takes on what it means on one hand to be truly evil, and another to be inexorably consumed by it that you forget which way is up.
It begs reflecting on the old adage on devils we “know,” and considering if they really are better than the ones we “don’t.” While Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw The Devil and maybe even John Woo’s Face/Off, Ringo Lam’s Replicant, or even Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall provided ample answers to this inquiry, perhaps Devils can contribute something extra to the convo.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.