Fantastically talented and exciting directors appear to be growing on trees in South Korea, and this year’s Fantastic Fest has already added a couple more (based on the debuts of The Man From Nowhere and Bedevilled). But these young upstarts have a ways to go before they can point to the quantity of their output as well as their quality. So for now at least the three reigning masters of Korean cinema are safe. Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho receive much deserved praise, but just as good as either of them is the seemingly less well known Kim Ji-woon.
He’s moved fluidly from black comedy (A Quiet Family) to horror (A Tale Of Two Sisters) to crime (A Bittersweet Life) to western (The Good the Bad the Weird) and has succeeded brilliantly each time. His latest film goes darker than anything he’s made so far with a brutal and twisted tale of obsession, revenge, and madness…
A woman is ambushed in her car by a man named Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) who busts through her windows and bashes her violently over the head. He kills her, cuts her into pieces, and goes back to his day job as a school bus driver. Her fiance, Joon-yeon (Lee Byung-hun), is understandably devastated at the news and takes a leave of absence from his job as some type of secret service agent. He wants revenge on his fiance’s killer, but his plan is as brilliant and twisted as it is risky and morally reprehensible.
He tracks and captures Kyung-chul, beats him mercilessly, and makes him swallow a transmitter unknowingly. The killer awakens a free man and sets out with the intention of raping and killing again… only to be tracked, tortured, and released by Joon-yeon. Again. And again. Each time Joon-yeon dishes out more severe physical punishment including a particularly nasty and slow slicing of Kyung-chul’s Achilles tendon. Beyond even the physical pain is the growing frustration within the killer while he tries to figure out who this man is and how he finds him each time.
His disbelief is blackly comic under the circumstances, but the audience is trapped between two conflicting emotions. It’s cathartic and humorous to see Kyung-chul’s plans foiled because it’s usually the bad guy who toys with the protagonists. But this plan, as entertaining and fitting as it seems, has a darker side that Joon-yeon fails to consider. Each time he recaptures Kyung-chul it’s after the man has already started terrorizing another woman. He beats and/or begins to rape two different women before the supposed hero arrives to save the day.
Complicating things further are the occupants of a mysterious house with a freezer full of fresh meat. And what happens when Kyung-chul discovers the tracking device in his belly…
Lee is probably (and sadly) best known in the US for playing Snake Eyes in the recent GI Joe film, but his best work can actually be seen in two previous collaborations with Kim. That successful relationship continues here as Lee makes his pain and rage visible in both subtle and explosive ways. You believe his suffering as well as his ability to dish out this revenge. Choi is far more recognizably as the lead in Park’s Old Boy, but his role here re-frames him in a mix of cruelty, madness, and pure evil. Both actors excel here and their clashes are tense and exciting affairs.
At 144 minutes, I Saw The Devil could stand to trim ten to fifteen of them to improve the pacing. It never feels slow but it does occasionally feel long, and that’s really the biggest criticism here. It’s a beautiful film in spite of the horrifically brutal violence on display (and maybe just a little bit because of it…), but it’s also an emotionally heavy one. Sharp directing, a fantastic score, two brilliant lead performances, and a screenplay that flips convention on it’s bloody ear help make this one of the most twisted and devastating serial killer films in years.