Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw The Devil (South Korea, 2010), make no mistake, is a brutally violent movie. It doesn’t linger on the acts of violence themselves, but you certainly know exactly what’s happening, and what’s happening is very disturbing. Nonetheless, as revenge-based thrillers go, it’s one of the best I’ve seen, and as long as you know what you’re in for, and have a high tolerance for skillful filmmakers pushing that envelope, you’ll be darkly satisfied with Kim’s well-structured narrative, his patience and respect for his target audience, and the fierce moral dilemmas he tackles.
A woman (Oh San-ya) has a flat tire on a snowy country road, and is waiting in the car for a tow truck. A man in a small commuter school bus stops and offers to help, but she graciously passes on the offer. And what you think will happen happens. She’s violently subdued, taken elsewhere to be assaulted and killed, and her body parts are scattered on the river, where they’re found by the police.
The woman turns out to be the fiancée of Kim Soo-Hyeon (Lee Byung-Hun), the Korean equivalent of a Secret Service agent, and his grief and devastation result in a quest for revenge that’s markedly different from the standard issue. After eliminating the first few suspects (in grisly fashion), his investigation leads him to Jang Gyeong-chul (Choi Min-sik of ‘Oldboy’). Kim Soo-Hyeon speaks with Jang’s estranged family, and eventually discovers Jang’s workshop/abattoir, where he finds evidence that this is where his wife was done in.
Kim is able to track Jang via GPS on the school bus, and catches him in the act of accosting one of the schoolgirls. They fight, Jang is incapacitated, and, instead of arresting or killing him, Kim makes him swallow another GPS device with a microphone, and leaves him there, with a packet of money.
The battered Jang eventually makes his way back to the road, and is picked up by a cab, whose current passenger and driver think they’re doing Jang a favor by sharing the ride. What ensues is one of the most artfully shot, ferociously terrifying scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror/slasher film. As good as the film’s been so far, this sequence puts it in a whole other league. And we’re not even halfway through.
Jang goes to a local clinic to have his injuries tended to (can’t beat national health…), but can’t resist setting upon the cute young nurse in the clinic storeroom. But not only is Kim tracking him, but he can hear the details of the inevitable attack, and times his own counterattack to when Jang is most vulnerable. He beats Jang senseless again, adds a particularly painful flourish, orders the nurse to treat him for those additional injuries, and disappears again.
By now Kim’s plan is clear – to inflict as much pain on the psychopathic Jang as possible, continually. Kim will never relent, or free Jang from the ever-escalating torment. But the hunted Jang is fearless and very smart, and perfectly capable of, later, twisting the situation to his own psychotic advantage.
Theoretically, this is familiar territory even if you’re not familiar with recent similar films. Think back to 1971’s ‘Dirty Harry,’ and the secret glee you begrudgingly felt when Harry Callahan chose to meet Scorpio on his same unrepentantly violent level. Or 1978’s ‘Dawn Of The Dead,’ where there were, honestly, times in the film you were actively rooting for the zombies. Bronson’s ‘Death Wish’ films, recent vigilante thrillers from Jodie Foster and Kevin Bacon, ‘I Spit On Your Grave,’ ‘Last House On The Left’ (actually an exploitation remake of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Virgin Spring’) – it’s appropriate to feel the overall subject matter of these films may be beneath you. But when these films work for the audiences who enjoy them, their catharsis is buoyed by the same qualities that make any other film admirable – believeable, relatable characters, genuinely compelling moral conflicts, and the artfully novel presentation of ideas that no other medium can express.
If the film seems to start out slowly, it’s only because director Kim Jee-woon is so scrupulous in presenting the stakes involved in Jang’s psychosis and the depths of grief that Kim Soo-Hyeon and his family experience. Establishing these two polarities so thoroughly, so early-on, pays big dividends in storytelling efficiency later. Lee Byung-Hun, flashy and insolent as Chang-yi in ‘The Good, The Bad, The Weird’ (Kim Jee-woon’s delirious but overindulgent Sergio Leone homage), creates an entirely different character here, diametrically opposed in temperament and rhythm. Choi Min-sik, as the serial killer Jang, is astonishing – easily one of the most compelling and fully-realized villains I’ve ever seen in a film. Ever.
You’ll already know if this film is or isn’t up your alley, but if it is, it’s a must-see. And it’s imperative that you not rob yourself of the chance to see it on the big screen. Think of all the sloppy, lame-ass remakes you’ve had to endure, and pay for, from Hollywood over the last ten years, and then treat yourself to the real deal here.
‘I Saw The Devil’ opens at the Music Box Theater on Friday, March 25th.