There's an old proverb that says revenge is a dish best served cold. More recently, we might want to add a side of kimchi to that order. In the past decade, South Korean filmmakers, apparently reflecting a general distrust of official authority to handle justice, have become specialists in a genre of over-the-top, sadistic, bloody, vengeance films.
Principle titles include Chan-wook Park's trilogy, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (2002), Cannes Grand Prize winner Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005), as well as Kim Jee-Woon's A Bittersweet Life (2005).
Kim's latest, I Saw the Devil, is a typical mixture of the artful and the repellent, tied up in a cautionary lesson of the effects of staring too directly into the face of evil. Censored in South Korea, the film is savage even by serial killer thriller standards.
The opening scene, in which a young woman's car breaks down on a wintry highway, sets the foreboding tone. She calls her boyfriend, handsome Special Agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), sneaks into the washroom away from his colleagues to sing to her, and warns her to keep the car locked and wait for the tow truck. Then an apparently helpful middle-aged stranger comes up to her car.
As well as Soo-hyun's fiancée, the pregnant victim was also the daughter of a retired chief police. Soon the manhunt is on. Soo-hyun agrees to take two weeks off work. Instead, he begins sorting through a list of suspects, until he focuses on No. 3. The killer, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, who played the victim in Oldboy), is a school bus driver, an unkempt, animalistic character, with a general hatred for women, old people and anyone who gets between him and his desires.
Barely an hour into the film, which runs for more than 140 minutes, the two men have their first confrontation, a violent hand-to-hand battle in a botanical gardens at night, where the killer has taken a school girl captive. The younger and lither Soo-hyun wins, but, unexpectedly, the agent leaves the serial killer alive, with a wad of cash thrown on top of his body to aid his escape.
The trick is that he has made him swallow a GPS-tracking device with a microphone attached, so he can follow his every move and slowly terrify and torment him to death.
While pursuing his own increasingly perverse agenda, the policeman has left Kyung-chul the opportunity to kill again. The first killing of Soo-hyun's girlfriend is the film's most emotional shock and while the violence is never more intense, it multiplies and mutates in innumerable ways. That includes a grotesque comic sequence when Kyung-chul hooks up with an old serial killer buddy, a cannibal who keeps his victims like livestock.
What makes all this just-barely tolerable is that that I Saw the Devil is a film conscious of its own absurd extremes and frankly, beautifully shot, in luxuriant black, blue and, yes, red, that pop out of the darkness. The philosophical point is obvious and repeated several times. "You can't become a monster to defeat a monster," says Soo-hyun's girlfriend's sister.
After a while, the sheer length and repetitiousness of the film begins to feel pornographic in the dullest sense. Each episode of catch-and-release allows for new kinds of bodily harm to come to the cop and killer who are engaged in what begins to feel like a purgatorial reality game show, South Korea's Biggest Psycho.
I Saw the Devil
- Directed by Kim Jee-woon
- Written by Park Hoon Jung
- Starring: Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun
- Classification: 18A