The fucking Koreans have done it again, dear reader, and if you’ve been following Korean cinema for the last decade you know that that is a very, very good – if genuinely disturbing – thing indeed. In the last few years, Korean filmmakers like Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) and Bong Joon-Ho (Memories of Murder, Mother) have been pumping out crime films of great ambition and darkness, and with I Saw The Devil, director Kim Ji-woon (director of the films A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, the Bad, the Weird, both as yet regrettably unseen by your not-so-humble Nerd) proves that he can stand tall next to those two titans of the Korean cinema.
I Saw The Devil opens with a serial killer (a never better Choi Min-sik, and as he was the lead in Oldboy, you know that’s fucking saying something) abducting a woman and brutally murdering her. Her fiancee, played by Lee Byung-hun, is apparently some sort of secret agent or something and thus quickly discovers her killer’s identity and plants a tracking device on him. Throughout the rest of the film Lee catches the killer, maims and tortures him in some way, then releases him only to repeat the process all over again a little while later. As Lee’s sadistic cat-and-mouse game continues, we almost start to feel bad for Choi’s ruthless murderer character, making for one of the most disturbing revenge films in a genre filled with a whole lot of disturbing shit.
Much is made about how disgustingly intense this film is and with good reason: I Saw The Devil is graphic, gross, and often agonizing. I mean, it’s basically fucked up dudes doing fucked up things to one another for damn near two and a half hours and it’s from a country known for producing films of extreme violence the likes of which American filmmakers rarely dare to attempt. And yes, of all the Korean films I have seen, I Saw The Devil is without a doubt the most intense of them all, earning it a merit badge in depravity that is hard-fucking-won. But all those warnings aside, this is hardly the dreary slog through torture porn land (the new board game for the whole family – now available from Parker Bros.!) you might expect.
Kim Ji-woon wisely doesn’t set his story in a recognizable world but instead a sick play ground where psychos and sickos are around every corner. If this were just a movie where we watch Choi Min-sik’s character be terrorized in brutal ways by Lee Byung-hun over and over for ninety minutes not only would it be tough to take (and yeah, it totally is) but it would also be kind of boring. Instead Choi is released and then will find himself in all kinds of other improbable and intense situations peripheral to Lee’s game of terror. He gets a ride from some killers who already have a body in their trunk at one point, at another he nearly pulls off a rape of another unsuspecting young woman that Lee has to intercept, for example. At one point Choi Min-sik even hangs out with some fellow disgustos who are up to some truly nefarious shit in a mansion. It’s all heightened and operatic in the weirdest, most delicious way possible and that excessiveness, the sheer over-the-topness of it all both enhances the themes and makes the bleakness of the film more palatable in a strange way.
Because strange is always the name of the game in these imports, dear reader. That distinctive Korean clashing of tones is ever on display in I Saw The Devil, whether it’s the simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious discovery of Lee Byung-hun’s wife’s severed head (yes, that sentence makes sense if you see the movie) or a cannibal’s matter-of-fact meal preparation, there’s always something insane going on onscreen that is handled in the, well, strangest way possible. It’s melodrama taken up to opera taken up to hyper-opera until you’re simply in “fucked-up Korean crime film” territory.
If you’re a darkly adventurous sort (and if you regularly read the Nerd’s ridiculously profane and sophomoric reviews, chances are I’m talking to you – not to toot both of our horns or anything…) you really owe it to yourself to get hip to this shit already. I Saw The Devil might not be the best place to jump in for newbies, but it might very well be the best example of what Korea’s got up their blood-soaked sleeves to date – no fucking fooling, dear reader.