It’s hard to talk about the New Wave of South Korean cinema without at the very least touching on revenge pictures. Blame Chan-wook Park; his vengeance trilogy represents three of the best-received South Korean pictures released during the movement’s surge in the early-to-mid 2000s, and Park himself stands out as arguably the most talked about and lauded auteur of his country. Vengeance certainly isn’t the sole message of the varied styles and intents offered by South Korea’s many talented directors, but the suggestion that revenge movies comprise part of the country’s modern cinematic identity– and that those same films helped place it on the map of contemporary world cinema– nonetheless seems like a fair assessment.
Keeping with that newfound tradition, Ji-woon Kim brings us I Saw the Devil, a true revenge film in a vein similar to the works of Park where the pursuit of vengeance marks the picture”s raison d’etre. Kim lays the groundwork for the plot immediately, opening on the kidnapping and brutal murder of a young woman at the hands of serial killer Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi), an act that establishes the trend of repugnant and vicious acts of violence that carries throughout the rest of the story. Kyung-chul dismembers his victims so casually as to be appalling, and he disposes of their remains in the same unceremonious fashion as one might deposit an empty soda can or a wad of tissues on the sidewalk instead of a bin; for someone more well-versed in films of this nature, what I Saw the Devil depicts might not be especially shocking, but it most certainly is not for the faint of heart.
The gruesome qualities inherent to the film should leave the entire story unwatchable. Kyung-chul butchers people like cattle without batting an eye as Kim documents his horrific work in unflinching detail, but for all of I Saw the Devil‘s ugliness, there’s a thoroughly magnetic and captivating aesthetic sense in the way Kim and cinematographer Mo-gae Lee arrange each frame. Films of I Saw the Devil‘s kind can be deceptive; the violence they seemingly revel in has the power to alienate and obscure the artfulness with which it is choreographed and captured by the camera, so naturally they come to be devalued as art and decried for promoting the inhumane and grotesque acts that they actually vilify. But Kim knows how to strike a fine balance between bloodshed and beauty, and there should be no doubt as regards his cinematic prowess and his intentions in this picture.
In between these opposing elements, there lie exciting and propulsive action scenes as Kyung-chul finds himself hunted by a furious Soo-hyun (Byung-hun Lee), a government special agent as well as the fiance of the woman from the first scene, whose grief and anger drive him to visit all manner of torments upon his enemy. Neither Lee nor Kim are strangers to action cinema– they collaborated on 2006’s A Bittersweet Life— but they’re trying something new here, meshing a high-concept revenge meditation with dynamic, athletic fight sequences where Lee spins around poles like a gymnast to plant his foot in Choi’s face. Modern revenge movies like to ignore the ramifications of their hero’s quest and focus on cool action choreography instead, and while I Saw the Devil indulges somewhat in that department, all of it actually feels like it’s in service to the plot and remains plausible within the context of the story.
And none of it overwhelms the movie’s purpose either, happily. Even as Soo-hyun vaults over walls and physically overpowers every foe who stumbles into his path with all the delicacy of Steven Seagal, there’s never a moment where the film forgets that ultimately what matters is how his actions affect him. What’s interesting is that I Saw the Devil isn’t a slow burn leading up to Soo-hyun’s eventual adoption of a vengeful bent; Kim actually wastes little time in bringing his two leads together, and indeed they clash so early on that the movie could have been only an hour long. But Kim introduces a cat-and-mouse style of game between the two and in doing so provides a vantage point from which we enjoy, along with Soo-hyun and Kyung Chul, a better perspective of the former’s slowly unraveling humanity. Many vengeance films don’t tend toward this degree of self-reflexiveness, but Soo-hyun’s crumbling sense of right and wrong yields a dialogue between the two nemeses and adds another layer to the conversation Kim’s sparking with his audience through its own nuanced self-awareness*. It comes to the point that Soo-hyun almost ceases his fight to avenge his fiance and instead struggles to retain his compassion and righteousness, but of course he can’t have it both ways.
Kim’s best decision in I Saw the Devil— and he makes many, many good ones– probably comes down to his choices in casting. Summoning the aid of Min-sik Choi, formerly the hero of Park’s Oldboy**, to fill the role of the heavy here almost feels like bizarre reverse type-casting, but Dae-su is a world apart from Kyung-chul despite their similarly belligerent personae; ultimately, Choi’s presence just makes good sense. He’s one of South Korea’s treasures, an acting powerhouse whose ability to emote is so strong that he can make us alternate loathing and pitying Kyung-chul with alarming alacrity. Byung-hun Lee, on the other hand, players far closer to a type here, doing the soulless, intense, and focused ass-kicking machine bit that he played so well in A Bittersweet Life while remaining human. Bereft of that, intimate portrayals of Soo-hyn’s grief might feel disingenuous, but when Lee sheds a silent tear as he throttles Kyung-chul, he earns it. On-screen together, the two actors are absolutely electrifying and make for pitch-perfect adversaries as well as surprisingly kindred spirits.
Their rivalry forms the centerpieces of Kim’s most ambitious film to date– blurring the lines between Kyung-chul’s monstrous depravity and Soo-hyun’s insatiable need to assuage his guilt and grief, Kim underscores that the differences between them in the end are minimal. As the two men exchange physical and emotional blows with one another, I Saw the Devil proves to be a completely relentless in its capacity for cruelty and breath-taking in its mournful beauty, and marks what might be Kim’s best offering yet.
*In the sense that the film plays without a single wink or nudge at the audience.
**To which I Saw the Devil will inevitably be compared.