Director - Ji-Woon Kim
Rating - 4/5
Whenever a film starts with inoffensive background music on a quiet, dark, snowy road, alarm bells start ringing in your head. Especially, when said film is Korean, where the revenge flick is a refined art form. I Saw the Devil, misogynistic maybe, grotesque definitely, is pulsating, unrelentingly absorbing, heart in the mouth cinema from the off.
A young woman is waiting on the side of the road for a pick-up truck, on the phone to her fiancee, special agent Kim Soo Hyeoon, played by Byung-Hun Lee. Kyun-Chul passes by and offers her assistance with the flat tyre, which she politely declines. As she sits waiting, with the wind screen-wipers occasionally breaking the ominous silence, he comes back with a hammer to get her. He takes her to his underground kill-room where he proceeds with his ritual. The next day a young boy stumbles across a dismembered ear and informs the police. Kim, takes two weeks off work, starting his own vigilante mission, equipped with four photos of suspects. Having ruled out the first two, after beating them to a pulp, he finds his man and begins to exact his revenge. That old adage, to catch a criminal you have to think like one, is taken one step further as Kim decides to achieve, "a real complete revenge" you have to be 10,000 times as sadistic and cruel. Having forced Kyun-Chul to swallow a GPS tracker Kim hunts his prey, bringing him to the point of death, only to set him free to and start all over again.
At the heart of this film are the two immensely physical performances from Byung-Hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life) and Min-Sik Choi (Old Boy) as Kyun-Chul. Byung-Hun Lee is magnificent, controlled and brutal. The metamorphosis he undergoes from vengeful hero to morally gray psychopath is thoroughly believable. After catching Kyun-Chul and suffocating him until he loses consciousness there is a quasi-post-coital moment as he relishes in the relief. The pent-up rage of Kim is contrasted by the terrifying buck-shot performance of Choi. After Old Boy Choi comes to any film with baggage, and the moment his face looms up to the car window there is clearly only one direction this is heading. Choi gives Kyun-Chul the survival instincts of a trapped rat. In one incredible scene in a moving taxi he unleashes a stupendously bloody outburst, all the time the camera is revolving around the action. It is quite mind-boggling in its own right before you start to wonder just how Kim managed to shoot it. Choi is seethingly aggressive throughout, in one scene in a doctor's office the violence that emanates from him is heavy in the air. In his unbreaking glare there is a venom that sits just behind his eyes, it is emotionally draining just to watch. Kim begins to lose control and the two become flip-sides to the same coin, as the boundaries between good and evil are seriously muddied.
There are no lapses in pace so to speak, but the film sequentially snaps into action as the two leads lumber up for another round. These moments are laced with a tension and intensity other films struggle to get near to. When Kim interrupts Kyun-Chul mid-kill in the greenhouse it is a tour-de-force, visually stunning and blisteringly violent. It seems almost the norm for Choi to have seven bells beaten out of him on screen, but he is really put through the grinder here in scene after scene of unflinching, savage attacks. These battles are electrifying and push the film ever onwards, eyes glued to the screen you can't avert your gaze.
Ji-Woon Kim's previous work skips from genre to genre, horror, neo-noir, and what has been termed the Kim-Chi Western, however, he gives every film a unique sleekness that it is instantly recognizable.The film lurks in the darkness, neon-lights fizzing in the background, ominous red lamps dotted about. So engaging is the film that the darkly comic moments that turn up every so often jolt you briefly out of your trance; A knife handle slips off, a door-bell rings mid kill.There are some nice visual touches, too; Kyun-Chul lying on his back in the hotel staring up at the stuffed deer's head as a reminder of his predicament, or after having had the back of his head smashed in, waking up in a tunnel with light beaming through at the end of it. The illuminated angel wings that are attached to the rear-view mirror are particularly creepy.
When you compare this to the artistically bankrupt output of Hollywood, in the genre, Hostel for example, you realize what a thin line must be tread in order for a picture like this to refrain from degenerating into mere torture porn. Well directed, cerebral, and stylish, this is not one for the ultra-violence Asian movie ghetto. It is the product of a film-maker in complete control of his medium. Kim, in defence of his actions asks, "Do you know how it feels to have a huge rock in your chest?" For 2 hours, I did.