|The two monsters of I Saw the Devil meet face to face.|
How far can one go in pursuit of revenge? At what cost? These are the questions at hazard in Kim Jee-woon's grisly picture, which explores the possibilities of the classic revenge tale in ways heretofore unseen. Korean secret agent Kim Soo-Hyeon (played by South Korean tv/film superstar Lee Byung-hun) is mourning the loss of his beautiful fiancé, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered by the unapologetic serial-killer Kyung-chul (Korean actor Choi Min-sik, most famous for his previous work in Oldboy another Korean revenge classic). Unable to confront the enormity of his loss, Kim focuses his efforts into a pitiless search for the killer, beating each suspect into helpless submission before finally discovering his target, Kyung-chul, who is in the process of raping and murdering another victim.
Thus begins a merciless cat and mouse game between them; Kim Soo-hyeon, made increasingly angry by the loss of his beloved, begins to exact his protracted, barbarous revenge. He assaults Kyung-chul again and again, releasing him and treating his wounds each time. The bewildered Kyung-chul must slowly figure out who it is who is after him and why. Not to be underestimated, the killer plots some revenge of his own.
|Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) contemplates the motives of his unknown assailant.|
Which brings us to the so-called "hero", Kim Soo-hyeon. Lee Byung-hun's grief-stricken secret agent is a blank slate, aside from the tears he sheds at his bride-to-be's funeral, and the deep well of sadness which never quite leaves his eyes. He initially carries out his search and revenge with a brutish efficiency. As the film progresses, and he slowly discovers that no amount of revenge can assuage his grief, or lessen his loss, the futility of his actions--combined with the unabashed savagery of Kyung-chul's own revenge--drives him to a barely suppressed rage. In this anger, he commits the most sickening act of the film... one that will make the Joker's "let's put a smile on that face" scene from The Dark Knight seem tame by comparison.
|Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) fecklessly enters the lair of the beast.|
Kim Jee-woon, the director of this epic ode to carnage, must be applauded for keeping the movie consistently engaging, despite its somewhat bloated 140 minute runtime. Kim Jee-woon's Korea is a fantastical, nightmarish hellscape, which is dotted with monsters everywhere one turns. In the course of his travels through this world, Kyung-chul encounters a murderous duo manning a taxi (in one of the most impressively constructed scenes in the movie) and calls upon an old "friend"--or as close as he gets to a friend--who is happily ensconced in a farm in the countryside casually indulging his cannibalism habit. One hopes this isn't a realistic glimpse of life in South Korea, but the heightened, implausible tone of the film underscores the moral of the picture: it's all too easy to become a monster once you abandon what's right in the name of self-satisfaction... in this case, the pursuit of revenge.
Jee-woon cunningly uses light and color to highlight the internal journey of his protagonist. Soo-hyeon mourns the death of his wife in an unbelievably white funereal setting, representing the initial purity of his character even in the face of his loss. But as he begins to hunt down Kyung-chul, the movie, like his inner world, grows inexorably darker. When first entering Kyung-chul's ramshackle hut, he is immediately immersed in an array of sickly greens, bloodied reds, the occasional frigid blue and foreboding blacks... colors that reappear with a noticeable regularity. Much of this movie is awash in red, whether it be from blood or Kim Jee-woon's lighting; the color often precedes, or follows, scenes of intense violence.
This movie is definitely not for everyone... children, for example, should certainly stay far away. People with a weak stomach for scenes of great violence (though often the terrors that aren't shown feel more wrenching) may also want to give this a miss. However, for people that can manage to navigate the bleak, unforgiving waters of I Saw the Devil, it's ultimately a rewarding experience... rare for its genre in that the violence serves the movie's thematic purposes ( how easy comes the corruption of the human soul) rather than being merely exploitative. There are some far-fetched moments, one in particular concerning the tracking device Soo-hyeon implants in Kyung-chul, which strains credulity even in the implausible world Kim Jee-woon created, but as far as horror films and revenge flicks go, it's easily ranks among the best of its kind.
Gleenneen16's rating: ****1/2/*****
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