If there are two genres that, at least in American cinema, have a tendency to lend themselves to unadulterated sleaze, it's the revenge thriller, and so-called "torture-porn" horror flicks. The former often devolves into grimy exploitation films that seem to glorify the way a wronged man or woman exacts revenge. The latter simply indulges, to the point of excess, in ludicrously overwrought means of death and torture, all for the sake of shock value. Thankfully, all is not lost for either of these genres, as evidenced by Korean cinema, which has made quite the mark in the past decade with films like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. These are films that combine graphic violence and revenge-oriented plots, all without sacrificing originality, style, or story. The latest example of this trend, and the subject of this review, is Jee-woon Kim's I Saw the Devil, a film that entirely earns its jumps, scares, and squirms.
Like any film with horror elements (and a serial killer as a villain), Devil's prologue involves a kill sequence. We're introduced to Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh), the daughter of a retired police chief, who's engaged to young police officer Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee). Stopped on a snowy roadside with car troubles, she calls and waits for a towtruck, until a stranger comes along and repeatedly offers to help her. And even though everything about Kim's style seems to scream "slasher flick," the director's command of the visual language, combined with Mogae Lee's moody cinematography, elevates this standard opening trope into something with some actual punch.
As the story progresses, we see the intertwining paths of Kim and the serial killer Kyung-chul (Oldboy's Min-sik Choi), as Kim's quest for revenge takes an increasingly brutal turn. Rather than simply kill Kyung, Kim decides to play a far nastier game, and the film doesn't shy away from the details (I'll spare you any descriptions). His is a quest for revenge designed to make Kyung feel as weak and vulnerable as possible, something which proves disturbingly difficult. For all of the pain that Kyung goes through, he still remains a thoroughly unnerving presence. And, as embodied by Mr. Choi, the role comes to life with startling conviction and creepiness. Kim may be the protagonist (though don't mistake him for a hero), but it's Kyung who winds up being the more compelling entity. There's no exploration into his past, no attempt to unearth a reason behind his homicidal tendencies. He's simply a twisted and scary individual, and frankly, the way the story is executed and the character inhabited by Mr. Choi, that's more than enough to be effective.
And as blunt as the theme of the film may be, Jee-woon Kim's direction keeps the story flowing with an engaging pace, filled with plenty of moments of tension and horror (and yes, a few plot holes or stretches of plausibility). Because there's a compelling story, one filled with a highly intriguing (and disturbing) character dynamic, at the core, the scenes of violence feel justified. You might flinch or cover your eyes at times (I certainly did), but the editing never lingers too long. The film never resorts to shoving blood and gore in your face in excess in the hopes that you'll be freaked out. Granted, sometimes the film makes a spectacle out of certain scenes (there's a stunning 360 degree shot involving a confrontation in a speeding car), but never in a manner that feels ridiculous. The almost hypnotic way in which scenes unfold, barring those featuring the somewhat awkward score, helps ensure that all of the violent scenes feel earned, whether they're meant to move the plot forward, or simply illustrate Kyung's madness. Oh, and amid all of this, the film even manages flashes of dark humor, which is an achievement in its own right considering the subject matter.
Yet while small issues with the plot may not pose problems when compared to the film's overall impact, there are a few additional problems. A handful of cops are seemingly introduced as characters early on, only to be dropped and used as frame-fillers for the rest of the film. In a larger role is Ho-jin Jeon, as the current police chief, whose performance consists of being baffled and looking dopey; he's essentially mugging his way through the whole performance, and it borders on being a bad comic relief role, without the comedy. Then there's that damn score, which, while not used frequently, has a tendency to either fit awkwardly with the images, or just outright clash. Thinking back on the film, it's easy to imagine all of the intense scenes without a score, and being just as effective (did no one learn anything from No Country for Old Men?). And as compelling as the story is, the film sets itself up to something resembling an interesting conclusion, before gearing back up again for another 20 or 30 minutes. At the end of the day, it's a good thing that it kept on going, because the real ending is infinitely more jarring and effective than where the film was headed. Still, it's a shame that there's such a weird fake out, as if the screenplay was winding down and then the writer got a second wind, yet forgot to smooth out the transition between acts.
All in all, though, these problems come off as minor in the grand scheme of things. I Saw the Devil really is a compelling slice of Korean cinema, filled with strong directing, acting, editing, and cinematography. It is graphic and twisted, but benefits from a strong narrative that helps make sense of all of the unpleasantness. And by putting such violence in a compelling context, the film rises above so many similar graphic revenge tales, and emerges as one of the best crime tales in recent years.