Korea knows how to do revenge movies right, but before being edited to death, I Saw the Devil was banned from public theaters in Korea for scenes that “severely damage the dignity of human values.” Yeah whatever Korea. This is America and my red-blooded values weren’t severely damaged by this epic revenge thriller from Korean cult director Jee-woon Kim. Jee-woon has already proven himself to be a master craftsman with his previous films A Bittersweet Life, A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, The Bad, The Weird (the latter two currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly, btw) and with I Saw the Devil he cements his greatness even further – alongside a bit of the old ultraviolence.
Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) plays Kyung-chul, a serial killer who is the most terrifying evil force since Anton in No Country. The film opens with him abducting a woman stranded while she waits for a tow truck. He beats her with a tire iron, throws her in his mini-school bus (even killers need a day job), and brings her back to his hovel where he rapes and dismembers her. Unbeknownst to Choi, the woman was the fiancé of government special agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hyun from The Good, The Bad, The Weird) and the daughter of Seoul’s chief of police. After some light mourning, Kim leaves his government job to hunt down his girl’s killer inflict “10,0000″ times more pain on him than she experienced.
Kim’s would-be father-in-law the chief of police, tips him off on the main suspects in the case. After brutalizing two of them (several nut shots with an iron wrench does not look awesome), Kim finds his man. Not only does he find Kyung-chul, but he catches him right as he’s about to commit another rape/murder. Being an invulnerable special agent, Kim easily beats the shit out Kyung-chul. But instead of killing him, he forces him to swallow a transmitter while unconsciousness. Then he breaks Kyung-chul’s hand for good measure and vanishes.
Why plant a transmitter on the man who killed your fiancé instead of killing him or turning him over to the police? So you can track them and repeatedly torture them. Kim does this for two and half hours (I wasn’t joking in the first paragraph when I said “epic revenge thriller”). Each time, he viciously beats the piss out of Kyung-chul and permanently injures him in some manner. In possibly the most cringe-worthy scenes in the film, he severs Kyung-chul’s Achilles tendon with a scalpel. It goes without saying that this film is truly brutal and resolute in its depiction of a violent revenge.
Despite all of the graphic violence and severed tendons, Jee-woon never allows I Saw the Devil to become a “torture porn.” The violence inflicted on the serial killer Kyung-chul is always used as a tool to map the transformation of Kim into a monster – an instrument of vengeance as morally bankrupt as Kyung-chul himself. It’s the old idiom “stare into the abyss long enough and the abyss stares back.” Every time Kim catches Kyung-chul, only to release him again, he’s becoming more like the monster he’s crucifying. This is a standard root in almost every vigilante movie, but Jee-woon uses the motif to explore another side of the revenge spectrum: can you inflict pain and misery on a man who has no conscious and is literally void of empathy? If the victim doesn’t care if he dies can you even call it revenge? It’s like if Death Wish explored the emotions of Jeff Goldblum and the punks.
Flipping the script is just one element that helps set I Saw the Devil apart from other revenge fare. Then there’s the absolutely brilliant leads. As serial killer Kyung-chul, Choi Min-sik steps into the classic territory. Like I mentioned, Kyung-chul needs to go up there with Anton and also Daniel Plainview and Snoop from The Wire. He’s a downright terrifying sociopath and without any spoilers, the film gets really interesting once Kyung-chul realizes there’s a transmitter in his guts.
Lee Byung-hyun’s Kim slowly builds up from a lifeless character into a revenge machine and finally into a broken widow. He doesn’t care who gets hurt on his trail of vengeance, as long as he inflicts the most amount of pain possible on Kyung-chul. Despite threats and pleas from the police and his fiancé’s family, he continues to play his savage game with Kyung-chul. It’s a great shift from the calm killer for hire he played in Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Both these badass leads are framed by, as far as my research tells me, first time cinematographer Lee Mogae.
Mogae definitely knows how to shoot with suspense as a goal. Particularly incredible is the part of the movie staged in a creepy, taxidermy-hell-hole house that Kyung-chul seeks refuge in. Mogae uses framing and camera movement in the house’s hallways and tight spaces to build up an almost unbearable tension. Kang-ho Song (The Host and The Good, The Bad, The Weird) also delivers a deeply disturbing role in the house scenes. I swear I could smell him through the screen – he’s that gnarly.
With I Saw the Devil, Jee-woon Kim shows how truly meaningful film violence can be in a film and how difficult revenge can be when the mark doesn’t care about life and death. It’s equally meditative and an adrenaline rush, with some spot-on black humor mixed in to momentarily unclench your fists. As a massive fan of vigilante/revenge movies (check out my American Revenge video mix) I would say Jee-woon has made a masterpiece that beautifully reflects both sides of the moral compass.
I Saw the Devil is currently playing in select theaters.
This review originally appeared on the Mishka Bloglin.