By Christopher Campbell | Spout January 20, 2011 at 5:03AM
"Revenge is for movies. That guy's a psycho."
So says a character in Kim Ji-woon's new blood-deluge of a thriller, "I Saw the Devil." It's so reflexive a statement that it hits you on the head like a hammer, appropriate since there's a lot of skull-bashing here. And fittingly, it's Choi Min-sik with the hammer, evoking the iconic image of the actor's hallway fight from "Oldboy." In that movie Choi played the revenge-seeking protagonist. This time (as he also was in "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance") he's on the other side of the field after his serial-killer character, Kyung-chul, murders the fiancee of a special agent (Lee Byung-hun).
"I Saw the Devil" is no ordinary one-way revenge movie, though, which is why I was able to enjoy it. And it's why that reflexive dialogue is even more significant. This is a movie about psychos, and it ultimately shares a lot more in common with "Se7en" than it does recent films like "Taken," "Edge of Darkness," Hong Kong's "Vengeance" and any of this film's South Korean brethren (including "Oldboy"). If I had to lump it in with the latter group, I'd say it's the revenge movie to end all revenge movies. Or, at least the current trend -- though it will probably be remade, so there's no reason to think this will be the case.
All that needs to be said of the plot, without giving too much away, is that Kyung-chul has obviously killed the wrong woman, yet the agent also goes after the wrong man. Not wrong as in incorrect but wrong as in not an easy opponent. He mistakenly tries to play a game, partly to extend Kyung-chul's suffering and I think partly to redeem himself as the hero for others that he couldn't be for his fiancee. As the film goes by, you'll find yourself hating the protagonist as much as the antagonist, and the end is definitely less morally satisfying than it might first seem.
People have referred to "I Saw the Devil" as a perfect example of cat-and-mouse plotting. True, if the cat and mouse you're thinking of are the satirically violent "Itchy & Scratchy." This movie has, in addition to the head-hammering, plenty of gory scenes involving ball-bashing, decapitation, profuse stabbing, the eating of raw human flesh and one moment of jaw-breaking (with the excellent line "I'll give you a smiley face for life"). Yet, as bloody as the film is, it's not overly explicit. Kim Ji-woon doesn't fixate on the violence as much as some other filmmakers might.
We see just enough and never too much, even in the lengthier sequences of torture and murder (one of which I quickly referred to as "BLOODY STABBY TAXI" in my notebook). This isn't to say you should bring your kids or squeamish wife. The visuals that are there, coupled with your gap-filling imagination, is still full of some very sick and disturbing imagery. There's also a bit of black humor here and there, such as when a head falls out of a box at a crime scene, right in front of a crowd of news photographers. Again, though, it's not explicit. Maybe it's not even intended for comedy. I want to believe it's in fact a serious spoof on this kind of horror-comedy.
"I Saw the Devil" has already been picked up for distribution by Magnet Releasing (Magnolia Pictures), who will release the film in theaters March 4, 2011.