“Revenge is for the movies.”
The story of a lone vigilante going after the killer of a loved one is not new. However, in the hands of South Korean director Kim Ji-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters), it feels like we’ve never seen it before. His 2010 movie, I Saw the Devil, is Silence of the Lambs, Blue Velvet and Death Wish all rolled into one. I defy you to predict where the plot will take you next. It’s a thrilling ride.
The bad guy is a serial killer the likes of which I cannot remember seeing. Not only are his targets the most offensive (young women whom he rapes, kills and dismembers), but he has an FU attitude that only grows stronger, even as he is tracked down by the “secret agent” fiancée of one of his victims. Played by Choi Min-sik (Oldboy), Kyung-chul doesn’t look like a killer. And as his situation gets worse, he never breaks; instead, he only seems increasingly bothered by it all. And rather than hide or try to escape, he ramps up his efforts to kill.
When discarded body parts are found in the river, I Saw the Devil takes on an epic scale. A wide shot of a crowd watching on the side as (spoiler) is discovered quickly devolves into chaos as they break through the barriers and rush the police. Later, an ear is found in a field by a young boy; hence, the Blue Velvet comparison. This relative carelessness (or lack of concern) by the killer leads to our anti-hero learning his identity pretty early in the movie.
The fiancée, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is also atypical. Young and handsome, his career responsibilities are not really clear. But his skills as some kind of CIA-like professional are displayed throughout the movie in both the ways he plans his revenge and the ways he exacts it. He may be a more sadistic monster than the killer because, rather than simply kill him, he maims him bit by bit during each attempted attack of other targets.
Eventually, the tables turn, with control seemingly shifting back to the killer. I Saw the Devil then becomes a suspenseful race against time that ends with a climax you know is inevitable, yet somehow remains completely shocking. Throughout the movie, I’m reminded how relentless Asian horror can be. Yes, we can be brutal in the States, but movies like this always seem to go one step further. They’re not afraid to be bleak.
I Saw the Devil, written by first-timer Hoon-jung Park, is infinitely clever as it plays with familiar genre conventions. It’s a little self-conscious, but never in an overtly “winking” way. My favorite line is, “Revenge is for the movies; THAT bastard is a psycho.”
I Saw the Devil is long (2:21) and it’s sub-titled, but as the trailer for Taken 2 begins to generate buzz, I can’t help but think, “revenge is a dish best served… fresh”. And on any given day, I’d rather partake of a little Korean revenge than almost any other standard Hollywood rehash.