How should we interpret the now-overwhelming theme of revenge that has permeated South Korean film-making for the past decade? Most notably (and stylishly) explored in Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, the idea of planned, often horrifically violent retribution seems far-removed from the similarly themed American revenge films of the 1970s which often focuses on ordinary citizens who felt handcuffed by the limitations of the law. While elements of this still exist in the Korean counterparts, there's something much more deliberate and brutal in the redemptive efforts of the protagonists that often goes far beyond the simplistic "shoot the baddies" vigilantism on display in films like Death Wish. I Saw The Devil is Kim Jee-woon's (The Good, the Bad, the Weird, A Tale of Two Sisters) take on the genre, and his usual unrestrained intensity and penchant for oddness is definitely on display. While the story begins to lose steam near the end of the sometimes exhausting 141 minute runtime, there are enough unforgettable moments and brilliantly staged set pieces that it makes for a worthwhile entry in the strangely enduring genre.
And it would be nearly impossible to review I Saw The Devil without mentioning the previous Vengeance films, as Kim Jee-woon's effort could be seen as a deliberate response to that series, including the casting of Oldboy protagonist and Lady Vengeance antagonist Choi Min-sik as serial killer Kyung-chul. While the subject matter doesn't appear to be critical of those earlier films - which dissected the entire idea of revenge so completely that it would seem to be the final word on the subject - he does take it to its logical extreme, where the actions of the punisher and punished eventually become nearly indistinguishable.
Lee Byung-hun (The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Joint Security Area) stars as Kim Soo-hyeon, a special agent who begins a near emotionless crusade of revenge against Kyung-chul after the rape and murder of his pregnant fiancée. Utilizing a GPS bug which he forces into Kyung-chul after an interrupted abduction attempt, Soo-hyeon decides to show the killer the pain and fear that he has forced in others, following him dutifully while he pillages, only to brutalize him in response at every turn. But Kyung-chul proves to be a more resourceful character than expected, and who is exactly getting revenge on who soon begins to twist, leading to a predictably bloody climax.
Not quite the exploration of evil that the title suggests, Kyung-chul's campaign provides little closure or satisfaction, instead demolishing his professional and personal relationships, and it would be easy to interpret Lee Byung-hun's cold performance as similarly methodical like Liam Neeson's in Taken. Instead, early scenes showing the character barely holding in his intense grief provide a necessary counterpoint to his stoic blood-letting and bone-breaking which take up much of the film. This is a man in pain, and Lee Byung-hun does as much as possible with his restrained performance, particularly in the face of Choi Min-sik's wild murderer who seems completely unfazed by the pursuit as he continues his path of violence. Min-sik delivers another frightening and unforgettable performance, diving enthusiastically into the often revolting character with gusto. It's somewhat refreshing that even suggestions of nuance are soon quashed by some disgusting act, revealing a darkness that is quite unforgettable.
Jee-woon may not quite bring the flash and bravado in his film-making as some of his contemporaries, but he's still a stylish and skilled filmmaker who brings energy to the action scenes sprinkled throughout the run-time. His camera swoops around hurtling vehicles and flying bodies, while pausing to allow for the quiet moments in between. There's also hints of the usual bizarre humor, including Kyung-chul taking refuge with a fellow serial killer couple who also happen to be cannibals, but most of the tone is rather deadly serious, which eventually serves to get a bit tiresome. While the scenes are expertly staged, they do tend to eventually feel somewhat repetitive, and occasionally the sheer revelry in unpleasantness veers uncomfortably close to SAW-like horror films - particularly at the very end.
Those who enjoy the particularly extreme Korean take on revenge films may not find much new in I Saw The Devil, but what is here is done extremely well - though may require a strong stomach to fully enjoy. Bodies are sliced, chopped, beaten and broken and the camera rarely shies away from the carnage - Soo-hyeon putting a permanent smile on a character's face being a personal favorite - but this revelry eventually begins to get a bit tiresome, and what is left doesn't quite have the resonance of Chan-wook's trilogy. Still wonderfully acted and directed, and will satiate any audience member with a taste for bloody revenge.