An unflinching gaze into the heart of pure evil and a perverse genre entertainment par excellence, Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil” takes the serial-killer thriller as far into the realm of pulse-pounding mayhem as it has ever gone. When a pregnant young woman is brutally murdered by a hammer-wielding maniac, her special-agent b.f., Joo-yeon (Lee Byung-hun), goes on a rampage, stalking the killer as ruthlessly as any psycho. (” … And He Is Me” could be the pic’s subtitle.) Kim has battled the censors in South Korea and lost, but Magnet Releasing will issue the director’s cut Stateside.
A bona fide cult film, “I Saw the Devil” might well create a minor sensation among genre fans who dare each other to see it. Repugnant content, grislier than the ugliest torture porn, ought to have made the film unwatchable, but it doesn’t, simply because Kim’s pic is so beautifully filmed, carefully structured and viscerally engaging.
Near the start of the film, a kid finds a severed ear in a field beside a bridge in Seoul, leading detectives to discover a head floating in the water. The deceased was not only Joo-yeon’s g.f., but the daughter of a retired police chief, which gives the case added importance among the city’s cops. Mournful Joo-yeon announces he’s taking two weeks off from his duties at the National Intelligence Service, although it soon becomes clear he’s not going on vacation. Acquiring a short list of suspects, Joo-yeon beats the first two senseless, then finds his man in No. 3.
The killer, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), who works part-time as a school bus driver (yuck), goes toe-to-toe with Joo-yeon in a botanical-garden setpiece that aims to pump up the viewer’s bloodlust. Turns out the avenging Joo-yeon is a serious badass with martial-arts moves aplenty, although he curiously leaves Kyung-chul alive, throwing him into an open grave along with, outrageously, a wad of cash. Joo-yeon wants his nemesis to feel as much pain as possible before dying, and makes him swallow a GPS-tracking pill with a tiny microphone attached in order to follow his every move.
“I Saw the Devil” is somewhat akin to Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me” in its level of brutality and proximity to the murderer’s psychology. Kim follows Kyung-chul’s actions so closely — as he washes his bloody face in a creek after a wicked slaughter, for instance — that we catch ourselves feeling some shade of identification with, if not sympathy for, the devil.
More deliberately, Kim seems to borrow elements of the most disturbingly provocative American horror from the early ’70s — namely Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Craven’s method of making the audience gag on its taste for revenge is duplicated here, as Joo-yeon gradually turns from justly motivated hero into full-fledged sadist. Joo-yeon cuts the killer’s tendon and lets him loose again, the better to play out his twisted cat-and-mouse games.
“I Saw the Devil” sports a lot of philosophical talk — too much, perhaps — about the problematic irony of becoming a monster in order to catch one. Kim’s stronger tack is purely visual, turning the movie’s urban landscape into a projection of the characters’ sick fantasies, wherein they drive against incoming traffic and beat each other to a pulp but still survive, as if they’re robotic terminators. As murderer and avenger issue ultraviolent taunts with a strange hint of empathy for one another, the movie achieves a kind of ludicrous poignancy unmatched in the two decades since John Woo’s “The Killer.”
The actors — Choi from “Oldboy” and Lee from Kim’s “The Good the Bad the Weird” — make their characters differently aggressive, but equally watchable. Cinematographer Lee Mogae composes the film largely in darkness, as befits the pitch-black material, but colors pop out vividly nonetheless.
Even with its occasional flashes of dark humor, Kim’s pic is obviously not for all tastes. But art-film lovers with strong stomachs will want to see what the fuss is about, while fans of hardcore Asian action and horror will simply eat it up.