In Kim Ji-Woon’s I Saw The Devil, revenge isn’t just a dish best served cold. It’s served cold, reheated in the microwave, picked at, reheated again, then thrown in the garbage and fed to dogs. It’s an unbelievably brutal revenge flick. A secret service agent’s wife-to-be is murdered by a serial killer, and the agent goes fucking insane. He tracks down the suspect, figures out who it is, and then inserts a tracking device into his stomach. And then he proceeds to hunt the maniac down every time he considers satiating his maniac lust and brutally beats and wounds him. It’s a “look long into the abyss” film, where the hero becomes the monster and the result is two remarkable performances by the leads Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi. The violence is unsettling and gruesome, justifiable only barely because the villain is such a fucking monster we want to see him punished. This is not a film for the squeamish, and there will be some who want to flout this as “torture-porn,” if only because the torturer — and it’s torture, make no qualms about that — takes so much pleasure in spidering his fly, but that would to deny the outstanding final project. I fear for the inevitable American remake.
A snowy road. A woman is sitting in her van, waiting for the tow truck to arrive, when a helpful stranger shows up. She gentle denies him, sends him on his way. And then he accosts her in a brutal fashion, drags her off to his cavernous lair, and cuts her to pieces. His mistake? She was the love of Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee, Storm Shadow from GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra), a secret service type who immediately takes a leave of absence to track the killer. The girl’s father, a retired chief of police, gives him the four suspects files. Soo-hyeon finds every single one of the suspects and beats the everloving fuck out of them. When he finally locks on to the actual killer — a school bus driver and complete fucking psychotic named Kyung-Chul (Min-sik Choi, Dae-su Oh from Oldboy). He catches him in the middle of a rape, and beats him in the head with a rock. The film’s barely been on for a half-hour, so already we’re dealing with something different. Instead, Soo-hyeon jams a GPS tracking device/microphone in Kyung-Chul’s mouth and forces him to swallow it. He shatters his hand with a rock and leaves him in a parking lot.
This is where the film makes Taken look like Strawberry fucking Shortcake. Kyung-Chul goes Oldboy again, wandering around trying to figure out what in the fuck happened, while Soo-hyeon pursues him, listening in on his every insane move. If Kyung-Chul steps out of line, Soo-hyeon appears like an avenging angel, brutally beats him further, and then leaves him with another crippling injury. He beats him within an inch of his life and then disappears into the night. It’s fascinating and horrifying.
Byung-hun Lee is outstanding as the cold-hearted stone-faced secret agent stalking his prey. He becomes the Terminator, seeking vengeance and seemingly unfazed by the horrors that he is inflicting on this ghoul. But he does break down, and watching him melt is just as captivating. But the real kudos have to go to Min-sik Choi. His killer is complete maniac. Mickey and Mallory belong in the fucking “Disney Hour” compared to this dude. He’s totally unbalanced, reveling in the sheer delight of hacking and slicing his victims. You can actually see the power and madness in his eyes. Fans of Oldboy will remember the barking mad ending to that film. Well, take that part and stretch it out over an entire 2 1/2 hour film. It’s mostly why I fear remake, because any actor seeing that performance will want a chance to replicate it for American audiences. It’s why you want to always play villains.
Kim Ji-woon continues both his tradition of outstanding horror and visual acumen. He was the originator of A Tale of Two Sisters and more recently, the outstanding The Good, The Bad, and the Weird. There’s a moment in the film that left me marveling. Kyung-Chul has just unwittingly gotten into a cab with two thieves. He pulls his knife, as the two begin to edge towards him — the driver and the passenger in the back seat. The camera whirls around the exterior of the car as Kyung-Chul begins to repeatedly stab the shit out of them, blood spritzing in arterial jets from the wounds as he first cuts into one and then the other and then back to the first. You don’t realize the beauty of the shot, like Children of Men when you realize the one crazy sequence was all one extended shot. It’s moments like that that make you aware of the talent and creativity of Kim Ji-woon.
It’s not a film for everyone, and I would almost lump it in with horror if I had to cage it with genre. I Saw The Devil goes some truly dark fucking places. When you discover what Kyung-Chul’s been doing with his kills, your jaw will drop. It’s like escaping from the Hostel in the middle of Eurodisney; it’s that much of a mindfuck. As I’ve been saying, Korean filmmaking is truly reached a level of horror and brutality that should make American filmmakers ashamed. The bar has been set well above their frenetic cut summer-shitfests. If they’re able to do this, there’s no excuses for why we can’t expect more from our studios.