South Korean filmmakers have taken over the revenge-picture genre in a manner that makes American macho types look like a bunch of schoolgirls. I Saw the Devil, director Kim Jee-woon’s astonishing story of a serial killer who picks the wrong man’s fiancée to murder, is so extreme and intense that it had to be trimmed down in its native country before it was released to theaters. We lucky westerners get to see it in all its hair-raising, stomach-churning glory, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Kim (The Good, the Bad and the Weird), working from a screenplay by Park Hoon-jung, isn’t interested in gore-for-gore’s sake or Saw-style torture (although to say that the movie is not for the squeamish doesn’t even begin to describe it). Considering the sheer extent of mayhem, the amount of graphic violence shown onscreen is rather restrained. The movie derives its disturbing edge from the psyches of its two lunatic protagonists: Kyung-chul (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik), a school-bus driver (!) who abandoned his wife and son years ago to pursue a part-time career as a serial killer, rapist and torturer; and Joo-yeon (Lee Byung-hun), a handsome, taciturn cop whose pregnant girlfriend becomes Kyung-chul’s latest victim.
After finding the young woman’s severed head, the police round up four potential suspects, and Joo-yeon takes time off from work to track down each of the perps and figure out which is guilty. Once he finds Kyung-chul, he beats the man within an inch of his life in a sequence designed to feed and satisfy the viewer’s bloodlust. Mission accomplished. But instead of finishing him off, Joo-yeon makes the unconscious killer swallow a tracking device with a microphone, so he can follow and hear him everywhere he goes. As soon as Kyung-chul has recovered from his wounds, Joo-yeon shows up again, ready to lay down even more hurt. Joo-yeon’s pain over the loss of his beloved will never diminish, and he wants the man who took her from him to feel the same suffering.
Movies about revenge often reflect on the effectiveness of getting even: What happens to a man’s soul if, in the process of avenging an injustice, he becomes exactly what he’s fighting against? I Saw the Devil takes a more complicated approach to that dilemma. Yes, Joo-yeon’s tactics eventually start to resemble the actions of a psychopath: His single-minded obsession becomes frightening. But Kyung-chul is such a despicable, detestable, unrepentant monster, he seems to grow worse the more Joo-yeon punishes him (when he visits a doctor’s office, he threatens the physician and then tries to rape the attending nurse).
The antipathy between the men feeds their hatred, and as their showdowns escalate, so do their ploys to outsmart each other. I Saw the Devil contains some spectacular sequences, such as a knife fight between three men inside a speeding cab, and there’s a noticeable streak of pitch-black humor — an acknowledgment by Kim that the game these mortal foes are playing is strictly for fools. As despicable as it is, Kyung-chul’s unapologetic evil is also slightly humorous: He insults everyone, will kill anyone and makes no apologies, even when his head is locked into a guillotine. This guy brings an entirely new dimension to the term “bastard.” I Saw the Devil ends on a perfect note of haunting unease: The outrageously bloody duel between cop and killer is definitively settled, but at an immeasurable cost. The question Kim wants you to contemplate is: What would you have done differently?
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Oh San-ha, Chun Kook-haun, Chun Ho-jin, Kim Yoon-seo, Choi Moo-seong, Kim In-seo.
Director: Kim Jee-woon.
Screenwriter: Park Hoon-jung.
Producer: Kim Hyun-woo.
A Magnet Releasing release. Running time: 141 minutes. In Korean with English subtitles. Vulgar language, graphic violence, considerable gore, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes.Opens Friday April 15 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.