“Severely Damaged Souls” — the title of a retrospective on the work of Korean director Kim Ji-woon currently running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music easily describes the two deranged characters at the heart of his latest feature, “I Saw the Devil.” The BAM program derives its name from the language used by Korean censors when trying to justify their decision to remove about 90 gruesome seconds from this tense serial killer story. Alleging that a mere seven shots “severely damage the dignity of human values,” the censors’ efforts are not only misguided but hilariously ineffectual. Lifting that bit of material from this nearly two-and-a-half hour revenge tale can’t even begin to excise the extreme visceral impact melded to its DNA.
Lusciously shot in shades of black, blue and blood-red, “I Saw the Devil” opens with a murder in the snow. Psychopath Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) continues his habit of nabbing helpless young women when nobody’s around and hacking them to pieces. However, his latest score comes with a price: Having murdered the pregnant wife of hardened government agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), Kyung-chul faces a vengeful fury when the bereaved man goes rogue.
Soo-hyun’s decision to track down his wife’s killer is only the beginning of his twisted coping mechanism. Nearly an hour into the chase, he discovers and traps Kyung-chul, but decides to let him go — but with a tracking device. The game, and the dark psychology driving it, grows increasingly complicated as Soo-hyun begins hunting his target in an exceedingly brutal path to retribution.
Although largely programmed on the festival circuit as a horror movie, “I Saw the Devil” deviates from pure scare tactics with its integration of cops-and-robbers style espionage and thrilling hand-to-hand combat, as the two men repeatedly confront each other. While faster and stronger than the source of his sorrow, Soo-hyun struggles to make the insanely narcissistic Kyung-chul feel remorse. This most dangerous game goes straight for the jugular.
Eventually, Soo-hyun’s relentless pursuit-and-release approach outlives the director’s skill and the premise starts to feel redundant. Its shocks grow numb and the lack of a Kyung-chul origin story leaves a noticeable gap in the plot. Still, Kim’s attempt to use the splatter genre in service of a more classic showdown contains convincing performances and fantastic momentum that keep the underlying tension intact.
Taking a step away from the playfulness of Kim’s last outing, the Western pastiche “The Good, the Bad and the Weird,” the filmmaker intensifies the experience with bloody torture meted out in vicious detail. Close-ups of torn tendons and jowls, both inflicted by the agent rather than the murderer, illustrate the extent of Soo-hyun’s anger. “The bastard’s a complete psycho,” says the original psycho, whose mania appears to spread to his hunger, attracting the worry of family and friends. “He can’t become a monster to fight a monster,” says one. Whether or not Kim completes this transition forms the core of the movie, in addition to a tantalizing moral quandary that no amount of censorship could possibly diminish.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The BAM series and widespread cult appreciation for Kim’s films should lead to strong VOD numbers and decent theatrical attendance from hardcore genre fans who will seek out its limited release. However, the U.S. opening of “I Saw the Devil” will mainly serve to raise awareness for “The Last Stand,” Kim’s upcoming English-language debut.
criticWIRE grade: B+