When a young woman named Joo-yun is abducted and gruesomely murdered by a serial killer, her fiancé Soo-hyeon Kim, a secret service agent in the employ of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, goes rogue with one overriding goal: finding the killer and exacting revenge. Soo-heyon’s investigations lead him to a man named Kyung-chul, a school bus driver leading a horrific double life. But Soo-hyeon’s ruthless plan for vengeance goes well beyond merely repaying Kyung-chul in kind, and the two men become combatants in an increasingly vicious game which not only threatens Soo-hyeon but those around him…
I’ve quoted Nietzsche’s old saw about fighting monsters enough times by now that it’s become a bit of a cliché, but I must admit that it’s the cornerstone of most, if not all, of my favorite revenge stories. For me, it’s simply not enough to dispose of wrongdoers in emotionally and narratively satisfying ways; I like to see certain themes explored. To what extent does intent differentiate abhorrent acts perpetrated by “good” or “evil” people? Does the end justify the means? Can one inhabit the darkness for a long period of time without becoming corrupted by it?
Wunderkind director Ji-woon Kim (A Tale Of Two Sisters and The Good, The Bad, The Weird) and screenwriter Hoon-jung Park shy away from asking those questions outright in I Saw The Devil, but their film definitely provokes them. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if Soo-hyeon’s occupation was deliberately chosen in part to add a political subtext to the film.) The story is simple, almost deceptively so–revelations that would occur in the third act of a conventional mystery-thriller are dispensed with in the first half-hour, leaving me wondering how Kim and Park would fill up the film’s remaining two or so hours.
The answer to that is with brutality, as Soo-hyeon and Kyun-chul play out their battles across a series of locales ranging from remote estates to the depths of the city. Kim has no intention of pulling punches, and liberally applies blood and violence to his scenes like he’s painting his spare bedroom–the sort of thing that led condescending critics to coin the term “torture porn.” But the scenes also deliver an emotional wallop, never allowing the audience to become too comfortable, or indeed, at all comfortable. (I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending.)
Soo-hyeon is not exactly Everyman, but he’s no hero, either, and Kim and Park never pretend he is; rather, he’s an antihero in the best crime-pulp tradition (I Saw The Devil could be the best novel Stephen King’s fictional scribe George Stark never wrote). Kim’s direction is impeccable throughout, with beautiful compositions and breathtaking action scenes that excite without overwhelming or sacrificing coherence. (I’m looking at you, Star Trek Into Darkness.)
The ensemble is superb, but unsurprisingly dominated by Kim regular Byung-hun Lee as Soo-hyeon and Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi as Kyung-chul. Lee brings his character (who, it must be admitted, is a bit thinly characterized) to life with steely, ruthless purpose, sympathetic even when he’s sacrificing morality (and playing dice with other peoples’ lives) in pursuit of his goals. Choi is simply brilliant in his role, engaging and–dare I say–entertaining even as he’s committing brutal violence for his own entertainment. He goes over-the-top just enough to keep the audience interested, but never turns into a cartoon character. If, twenty years from now, Kyung-chui is regarded as one of modern cinema’s greatest villains, I shouldn’t be at all surprised. In fact, it would probably be an injustice if he weren’t.
You could probably make an argument that I Saw The Devil is more of a crime movie than a horror film (something you could also say about another movie I recently watched, the divine Sushi Girl), but in the end labels don’t matter. There’s enough violence and squick to appeal to the most dedicated gorehound, and I could recommend it on that basis alone. But beyond the gore, it delivers one hell of an intense cinematic experience…and that makes it one of the best films of the last couple of years, regardless of genre.
My rating: 10 of 10.
South Korea; in Korean, with English subtitles. 141 minutes. Directed by Jee-woon Kim. Starring Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, In-seo Kim.
Thanks to Nicki.