It always amazes me how certain countries at certain times become major cinema hot-spots. In the late forties Italy was a major hotspot, in the fifties Japan was a major location, in the sixties France was even more prominent than it usually is, in the seventies the United States was a great place for legitimate art, in the eighties we saw some interesting movies coming out of Eastern Europe, and in the nineties we saw a rise of interesting films from Iran and China. In the 2000s there were a handful of hot spots like Romania and Mexico but the country that really emerged as a newly discovered place for awesome movies was South Korea. What was particularly interesting about Korea was that a lot of the movies coming out of it could appeal to both high brow critics and to genre fans looking for bloody violence. Korea’s breakout filmmaker was obviously Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho has become a critical darling as of late. A director who has been in the strange position of being the third or fourth most famous director coming out of Korea is Kim Ji-woon, the director of A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, The Bad, and The Weird. Ji-woon has now come forward with a new film, I Saw the Devil, which should make a quality bid for his importance to the Korean New-Wave.
The film begins with a woman named Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) pulled over to the side of the road with tire problems. A man approaches and offers to help, but she decides to wait for a tow truck instead, a good choice given what tends to happen to people who accept offers like that in movies like this. It wouldn’t save her though; the man, a serial killer named Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), soon bashes in the window of the car with a hammer and proceeds to brutally murder her. When news of this reaches her fiancé Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), a cop or government agent of some sort, he swears revenge and begins to track the killer down. He is not content to simply murder the killer or even to murder him elaborately, instead he wants to track him down torture him, release him, then track and torture him again. This proves to be a more elaborate game than it originally seemed and it quickly escalates into a dangerous cat and mouse chase between the two, who in the tradition of the genre are not so different.
The film is a very slickly produced thriller which, like a lot of these Korean films, is made with all the production values you’d expect from a Hollywood film. The film has that dark but clear cinematography we’ve come to expect in a post-Fincher world and the film also has some really cleverly filmed set-pieces. The movie also has some excellent acting from Oh San-ha and Jeon Kuk-hwan, but without a doubt the best performance here comes from Choi Min-sik, the actor who starred in Oldboy and who is back on the screen after a self imposed exile from acting. Here he plays a truly detestable killer, one who starts off like a sort of brutal hobo but then emerges as a sort of sleezy bastard, and who by the end of the movie does indeed start to seem like the devil himself.
Kim Ji-woon has been one of the harder Korean directors to peg down. His A Tale of Two Sisters was a strange sort of horror film that I’m not ashamed to admit I didn’t really “get” and his next project was a hyper-crazy genre piece. This new film is much more clearly part of the “Asia Extreme” field. Early in the film I was tempted to call it a cross between one of Park Chan-wook’s revenge movies and one of Bong Joon-ho’s police procedurals, but as the film progressed it became clear that it was much closer to the former than the later. The theme here is most certainly revenge, which incidentally is a theme that I’m a bit touchy about. I hate revenge movies when they’re just looking for cathartic thrills, and are clearly on the side of the avenger and revel in their quest. Fortunately most revenge movies made with any ambition does make at least cursory attempts to show the toll that revenge takes on the avenger, how it drains them and ultimately fails to satisfy them. This movie takes that even further, Soo-hyun’s quest actually has consequences that reach beyond himself and his prey: it spills out into the populace making it particularly hard to justify what he’s been doing. This brings up questions about justice itself: do we seek justice in order to protect the populace or to seek out retribution? Soo-hyun choose the later over the former with dire consequences.
Of course, by dire consequences I mean bloody violence. This movie has already achieved great notoriety in world cinema circles for its graphic content and I think it lives up to its reputation. Most of the movies these days that generate controversy for violence like Antichrist usually just earn their reputation from one or two very graphic scenes, this one is more infamous for the quantity of its violence. There’s probably nothing here that will be beyond what a hardened film buff has seen before, but it just keeps happening. You know that scene in Oldboy where Oh Dae-su pulls out a man’s teeth with a hammer? Imagine a movie that has the better part of twenty scenes like that. Well… maybe most of them aren’t that gross, but there is definitely a cumulative effect. In fact it gets a bit numbing after a while, about two thirds of the way through the movie I was beginning to get a little sick of all the violence, and by the end I really actively wasn’t interested in Soo-hyun’s final revenge. This might have been by design, geared to make you as exhausted by the end as the protagonist, but the effect isn’t really pronounced enough and it really just kind of feels like a movie that’s been poorly paced.
I Saw the Devil is in many ways the movie that this wave of Korean cinema has been leading up to: it’s violent, well made, and a little off-beat. It’s like the ultimate serial killer movie, after this film there is no need to ever watch another episode of CSI or to see another Eli Roth style torture porn film. That said, this is a movie that is only recommended to a very specific audience. If you didn’t like (or haven’t seen) some of the other “Asia extreme” movies, skip this. If you’ve liked some of those movies but don’t necessarily want to see that aesthetic brought to the next level, skip this movie. But if you’ve got the stomach for this and the interest in seeing this kind of thing pushed to the limits you’ll find in I Saw the Devil an extremely well made travel into the heart madness.
***1/2 out of Four