3 stars out of 4
At one point In I Saw the Devil, special agent Dae-hoon, played by Lee Byung-hun, sits on his enemy’s back and grabs him by the ankle. He then thoughtfully tells a nurse who’s in the room to cover her eyes and ears before he gouges out the man’s Achilles tendon. Needless to say, if you often feel the need to cover your eyes and ears during movies, this Korean revenge thriller is not for you.
Dae-hoon leans in and tells his victim: “This is only the beginning.” He might as well be telling the audience; it’s only halfway through the film and there is plenty more — more bludgeoning, more stabbings and more torture. Dae-hoon is not the film’s villain, though — he’s the man who became a monster while fighting a monster. When Dae-hoon’s pregnant fiancée is murdered by serial killer Kyung-chul, he vows revenge on the psychopath.
When speaking of vengeance in Korean cinema, one instantly thinks of Park Chan-wook’s famed revenge trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). In comparison, director Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil involves less psychological and moral ruminations, but more decapitations.
Still, the great element that Park and Kim’s films share is Choi Min-sik (star of the cult classic Oldboy). As Kyung-chul, a psychopath who other psychopaths fear, Choi is wild, intense and terrifying. He drives a school bus with angel wings on the rear-view mirror and plucks romantic tunes on a guitar. But his evil is real. When he rubs Lee’s fiancée’s arm, he says, “Your skin is so soft, looks like it’ll be easy,” like a butcher contemplating a cut of beef.
Lee is the perfect counterpart. As Dae-hoon, he’s cold, intense and terrifying. From the moment Kim focuses on Dae-hoon’s destroyed, tear-streaked face — his fiancée’s severed head rolling at his feet — the audience is on a mission with him. When he stares down his foe, the skin under his eyes pulsates, and you know he’s about to blow. Instead, he prolongs the hunt. He stuffs a GPS tracker in Kyung-chul’s mouth and then follows him around, exacting brutal revenge here and there, most often when Kyung-chul is about to gut his next victim.
Dae-hoon is calculated, whereas Kyung-chul is an opportunist; if opportunity strikes and girl is waiting alone at a bus stop, for example, he’s got a metal pipe or a hammer ready in the back of his bus. Kim spares his audiences nothing, just as the killers spare no one. The director depicts violence and builds tension with a variety of shots and angles, from circular pans of the inside of cars to overhead city shots. But his film is also aware of its over-the-top gore by allowing for a bit of humour. Much of it is delivered by the hapless detectives trying to chase Kyung-chul and Dae-hoon; the lead detective questions a victim in the hospital, demanding in all seriousness: “Who broke your balls?”
The ball-breaker in question is Dae-hoon, which should be an indication that the film devolves into an almost 2½-hour competition of who is sicker. The script provides little dialogue and history, but it doesn’t matter because both Lee and Choi put so much flesh on their characters (more flesh to beat and cut).
At one point, Dae-hoon’s sister-in-law tries to get him to reflect on his actions, telling him: “Revenge is for movies.” Yes, thank goodness for that.
This article was originally published in the National Post on March 18 2011.