South Korean director Kim Jee-woon’s new film I Saw the Devil opens to a young woman (Oh San-ha) driving on a deserted highway, as her car stalls in the snow. She calls a tow truck, while her fiancé Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), a Korean intelligence agent, risks the ridicule of his colleagues by sneaking into the bathroom of the hotel room they’re doing some secret mission out of to sing her their song. It’s sweet. They hang up, and minutes later she’s beaten to a pulp, her skull probably cracked open, her body dragged across the snow by the film’s titular devil, the serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) to his van.
Kim Jee-woon’s a considerate director to give us this scene so early, before the opening credits have even appeared. Perhaps he realizes that the audience’s ability to enjoy I Saw the Devil will undoubtedly have some correlation to our squeamishness. If you can’t deal with one bludgeoning, here’s an opportunity to leave, a peaceful backdrop of red on white for your departure.
After the victim’s body is discovered, her father, the police captain of the violent crimes section (Chun Ho-jin as Detective Oh), hands over suspect files to her grieving fiancé, who acquires a tracking device from his agency’s labs and two weeks off for bereavement. Soo-hyun soon tracks down Kyung-chul, interrupting his attempt to rape a sobbing schoolgirl, but he has a more complex vengeance in mind than simply offing him. Kyung-chul wakes up battered but free, practically jumping at the next opportunity to murder someone. Soo-hyun tracks him, prolonging his punishment and watching (or rather, listening) as Kyung-chul wreaks havoc on no small number of people.
The ensuing maelstrom of rape, tendon slicing, beheadings, knife fights, skull crushings, eyeball destroying, and cannibalism that got the film banned in Korea is both fucking ridiculous in its intensity and completely convincing in its realism. Choi Min-sik, especially, is terrifying to watch, wearing his body’s bulk like a threat, even when he’s unable to hold himself up. After being conditioned to feel dread whenever a female enters Kyung-chul’s line of sight, the audience’s biggest moment of relief actually comes when we see him slaughter a man for the first time. I’m not sure what it means that that makes the film easier to watch.
Yet unlike other recent gore-fests from Kim’s South Korean countrymen (Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, for example, or his 2009 vampire flick/tonguebath Thirst), a love, or even an appreciation, of violence isn’t a prerequisite for viewing this epic revenge story. Bucking the stylized trends of “Asian extreme” cinema, I Saw the Devil’s violence is neither gleefully, cartoonishly campy, nor emotively choreographed like an Alvin Ailey dance troupe doused in blood and intestines. Kim’s obviously put much loving care into these severed heads and gushing wounds, but unlike his peers, he’s not too concerned with the pure aesthetic, symbolic, or transcendent possibilities of cinematic violence.
By restricting what violence says about itself, Kim expands what it communicates about those who inflict it. Our initial sympathy for the stoic yet vulnerable hero begins to fade, or at least becomes more convoluted, not only because he stands by while Kyung-chul casually slaughters whoever’s around. As Soo-hyung creatively mutilates Kyung-chul’s lumbering body — whether ice pick through the cheek or knife through the Achilles tendon — it’s as viscerally affecting as Kyung-chul chopping up bound women on the floor of his workshop. It doesn’t help that Soo-hyung remains mostly unscathed. With no stylistic clues telling us which wounds are righteous, they all hurt.
Kyung-chul and Soo-hyung’s game of hunter and hunted is unpredictable, its action emerging mostly from its well-wrought characters. But Kim still makes the film’s point overly obvious. As Soo-hyung tries to give Kyung-chul a taste of the fear — not simply the physical pain — that his victims suffered, it becomes clear that he can’t do so without becoming a monster himself. Still, in the film’s last scene, he sure does do his best. If only all morality lessons were this immoral.