Reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2010.
Violent revenge and its consequences are the preoccupations of a fair amount of the Korean films that make it to our shores, most famously Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy, in which ornate attempts to exact retribution inexorably spiral into despair and self-destruction. The start of “I Saw The Devil” promises more of the sort of story in which a bloody event is followed by an even bloodier reprisal that fails to bring with it closure — saintly, pretty Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha) is brutally murdered and dismembered when she’s left stranded in a remote area by a flat tire. But culprit Kyung-chul (“Oldboy”‘s Choi Min-sik) is identified and caught by Joo-yeon’s devastated fiance Soo-hyun (“A Bittersweet Life”‘s Lee Byung-hun) early on and after that point, the film rumbles off into crazier and far more interesting territory, because Soo-hyun lets Kyung-chul go.
As “I Saw The Devil” proceeds, its fundamental concerns about the nature of revenge become slyly undermined by the nihilistic exuberance of the exorbitant carnage, and by questions of how you can hurt someone who doesn’t care about anything. Soo-hyun, who’s a government agent, plants a tracker in Kyung-chul and follows and catches and hurts him, and then releases him in order to repeat the exercise. Despite the costs, the two become completely consumed with inflicting pain on one another, and we become consumed along with them, because director Kim Ji-woon’s staging of these sequences is so cracklingly energetic. Everyone, the film seems to argue, has got at least a little psychopath in them.
And the world of the film has a lot of psychopaths in it — the epithet “crazy bastard” is thrown around again and again, and accurately describes at least half of the characters that appear on screen. Kyung-chul may be a serial killer filled with rage at the world, but Soo-hyun obviously also has a significant vicious side, and allows Kyung-chul to continued raping and killing just for the pleasure of taking him down once again. Kyung-chul seeks refuge with an old friend whose primary pleasure is cannibalism. A car hijacked by one of the characters turns out, incidentally, to have a man tied up in the trunk. Who in the film isn’t harboring serious dark urges?
“I Saw The Devil”‘s already infamous levels of violence are formidable, not due to the excesses of the splatter as much as the creativity and cover-your-eyes realism of it — someone tries to give a Chelsea smile with his bare hands, for instance, and the camera holds on a man slicing through another’s Achilles tendon. One ingeniously choreographed segment involving a large house, an impaled hand, a shotgun and fish hooks is like the deranged flipside of the meticulous action setpieces from Kim’s previous film, neo-Western “The Good, The Bad, The Weird.” By the finale, your sympathies have slid so that the outcome of the battle is almost incidental — whatever justified revenge set the plot in motion has long ago faded away in the face of the opponents’ luxuriant sadism.
“I Saw The Devil” will be released by Magnolia in 2011.