Ah, Korean popular culture. You either love it like a kid in a candy store or you despise it with the sort of intensity usually reserved for war criminals. But for all the insipid pop acts, it’s easy to forget that Korea makes damn good films.
In this, the latest from Kim Ji-woon (of A Bittersweet Life fame), a young woman is brutally murdered and her secret agent fiancée, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), swears revenge. He identifies the killer as Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), but doesn’t waste him right away. Beating him to the verge of death and shoving a tracking beacon down his throat, Soo-hyun torments Kyung-chul slowly and repeatedly. Suffice to say, the seasoned serial killer won’t go down without a fight.
With the gore of the Saw films, the vengeance of Kill Bill and Oldboy, and the emotional weight of Joint Security Area, I Saw the Devil is a fascinating study of human nature. Soo-hyun starts out as an honorable protagonist, but as he pursues Kyung-chul like a vicious cat toying with an overweight mouse, and when innocent bystanders fall victim to Kyung-chul’s retaliatory anger, he becomes the same kind of monster he sought to destroy. The way the film humanizes Kyung-chul more than Soo-hyun further blurs the line between “good” and “evil”. I Saw the Devil is violent, but also morbid in a way that almost borders on parody. These mixed feelings of horror, anticipation and satisfaction make it the very best kind of unmissable car wreck movie.
Unpredictable, gritty and dark, the film barely drops pace for a moment and raises powerful questions about the value of revenge.