Torture porn may have run its course in American cinema, but it’s alive and (mentally un)well in South Korea, a country whose brutal horror movies in recent years put ours to shame. The Koreans are kicking our butts when it comes to horror with both brains and guts. I’m referring to two different kinds of guts, by the way: the gooey, gunky, bloody kind of guts and the brave-enough-to-push-and-provoke-an-audience kind of guts. “I Saw the Devil” isn’t quite torture porn but it takes all of the core elements of that subgenre — graphic, sadistic violence, fundamental questions about decency and morality — and spins them into something better: entertaining, thought-provoking, and scary as hell.
The film begins on a snowy night on a lonely stretch of road where a vicious killer named Kyung-chul (“Oldboy”‘s Choi Min-sik) finds and then kills a stranded female motorist. As he drags her body away, the victim’s blood stains the snow a deep shade of crimson. Innocence has been spoiled, once and forever, and there’s no going back. That’s because Kyung-chul’s victim had a fiance and unfortunately for him he’s a special agent named Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun, best known to American audiences as Storm Shadow in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”). Soo-hyun works as a spy, reporting to the man who would have been his father-in-law; he gives Soo-hyun the fiance’s case file, announces he’s going on a vacation, and leaves his son-in-law alone to find his justice by any means necessary.
Eventually, Soo-hyun does track down Kyung-chul, but his thirst for revenge won’t let him just kill him. Instead, he begins stalking Kyung-chul, following as he searches for new victims. Whenever Kyung-chul’s about to strike, Soo-hyun interrupts, leaving him some new bruises and a serious case of serial killer blue balls. Kyung-chul recovers and the process begins all over again.
As this bloody dance between the two characters escalates, the film really begins to take off. Director Kim Jee-woon, who made “A Tale of Two Sisters” and last year’s crackling “kimchi western” “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” knows how to manipulate an audience. He’s not interested in making a classic cat-and-mouse chase where the outcome and the viewer’s allegiance is never in doubt. Instead he creates a sort of cat-and-equally-scary-cat scenario, and invites us to react as we see fit. Kyung-chul is an unrepentant, inhuman murderer. But Soo-hyn’s not much better. So who do you side with? You can’t even really root for humanity in general, since almost every character in “I Saw the Devil” turns out to be a psychopathic killer, right down to the random taxi driver who picks up a hitchhiking Kyung-chul and just happens to have a dead body in the trunk of his car.
Jee-woon’s not the first guy to hypothesize that a man might have to become a monster in order to defeat a monster. But with the film’s unrelenting pacing and visceral action sequences, there’s very little time to dwell on the clichés. Just as he did in “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” Jee-woon nails that irresistible mix of compelling characters and inventive fight and chase choreography. He’s also uncommonly good at building interesting worlds for his deranged heroes and villains to do battle in: the Eastern Western frontier of “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” and now the dark, sinister landscape of “I Saw the Devil,” all remote houses in the woods, empty nighttime roads, and menacing meat lockers. This movie makes a very strong argument for vegetarianism.
Jee-woon starts from a place we have seen before — somewhere between “Saw” and “Death Wish” — but the journey from there is uniquely his. His two leads are perfect foils for one another. One’s homely, the other’s handsome, but both are equally terrifying, an obvious but effective statement on the way that evil comes in all shapes and sizes. So do movies, but most aren’t this good.