Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. If Jee-woon Kim’s ‘I Saw the Devil’ is anything to go by, it’s also a dish best served in one helping. Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) quite literally makes a meal of it, and the results are graphically disturbing.
The basic premise is so boilerplate you’d think you were watching a committee-made Hollywood identikit genre flick, not an eyeball-searing powerhouse attack on the senses from one of Korean cinema’s leading lights. Here’s a synopsis (and try not to groan): intelligence agent Soo-hyeon is working on his girlfriend’s birthday and phones her to apologise; to make things worse, her car is broken down, it’s a cold and snowy night and the tow truck is taking ages to arrive. A shambolic and persistent stranger pulls over, ostensibly to offer assistance. She politely insists that she’s fine. The stranger takes a hammer to her windscreen, wallops her into unconsciousness and drags her out. Some time later, in a deserted garage, she comes round and the really nasty shit begins.
Soo-hyeon, given a leave of absence after her dismembered body is found, calls in a favour from a buddy on the police force, gloms the files on the four main suspects, and sets out to find which one of them is responsible. And make them pay. Anyone bored yet? Anyone seen this kind of thing a million times before? Whip/deceased equine interface, anyone?
Ah, but Kim – director of ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, ‘A Bittersweet Life’ and ‘The Good, the Bad, the Weird’ – does things a little differently. Whereas the standard issue narrative arc in a Hollywood iteration of this material would see Soo-hyeon spend most of the movie working his way through the list until facing off with the killer in a mano-a-mano smackdown at the end, Kim has his (anti) hero brace his first two suspects (and by “brace” I mean he flogs one of them with the three-pronged plug end of an electrical cable before causing major trauma to the gentleman’s gonads, and rams the other with his car before beating him to a pulp) in short order, figure Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) for the guilty party not long after, and get the drop on him before the two hour twenty minute run time is even half over.
This is where Soo-hyeon crosses the line. Instead of finishing Kyung-chul off or turning him in (although on what evidence would be a moot point given the agent’s total disregard for due process), Soo-hyeon leaves him unconscious and with a broken ankle, forces a tracking device down his throat, plays out the leash a bit, and has his fun making Kyung-chul suffer. That’s “has his fun” as in humourlessly and determinedly makes life hell for him.
There are two drawbacks, as Soo-hyeon soon discovers. The first is that Kyung-chul is a serial killer, rapist and all-round sociopathic bastard and never mind that he’s on the run, a sociopathic bastard’s gonna sociopathic on someone’s ass. Net result, two murders and a rape by the time Soo-hyeon catches up with him. Seemingly oblivious to this collateral damage, Soo-hyeon repeats the ploy: he whales the tar out of his nemesis, again injuring him, then disappears and lets him go on the run again.
This time, Kyung-chul seeks sanctuary with his old buddy Tae-joo (Moo-sung Choi) – a man whose principle interests also run to rape, ultraviolence and Beetho—… uh, wrong movie. Still, the first two apply. Tae-joo is equally sociopathic. He and Kyung-chul knew each other from a terrorist movement they were in as younger men. Again, Soo-hyeon crosses a line: rather than ’fess up to his bosses, call in the big boys and nail two wanted me, he happily storms in and takes on both of them.
If it wasn’t for the rape and the wincingly excessive violence (make no mistake about it, this movie is brutal), ‘I Saw the Devil’ could pass itself off as comedy. Essentially, we have a game of one-upmanship between two equally driven, equally dangerous and equally uncompromising individuals. You could almost say that they’re two professionals in competition: the meticulousness of Soo-hyeon’s surveillance techniques and the economic way he inflicts violence and/or extracts information juxtaposed with the almost world-weary attention to detail which characterizes Kyung-chul’s acts of savagery.
Two sides of the same coin, you might say, except the faces of the Soo-hyeon/Kyung-chul coin gradually become reversed. Soo-hyeon starts out as a faceless government type in a suit with a thousand-yard stare but whose human qualities are evident just beneath the surface. Kyung-chul is presented initially as a blank implacable force of evil; take the mask off Michael Myers and it might be Kyung-chul’s face that you’d see. By the end, Soo-hyeon has inherited Kyung-chul’s impenetrable mask of a face, while cracks appear across the surface of Kyung-chul’s sadistic equanimity. (I don’t know if you can even use the phrase “sadistic equanimity”, but watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.) It’s a stretch to say that you come to feel sorry for Kyung-chul, but under the constant bludgeonings of Soo-hyeon’s misconceived vengeance, he certainly seems a tad more human. Sympathy for the devil, anyone?