Director Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil is a confronting, brutal and gruesome entry into the sub-genre of films focused on vengeance, and once again coming from South Korea. No punches are pulled and nothing is shied away from, creating a disturbing and haunting portrait of the true cost (and futility?) of vengeance.
When Joo-yeon, the pregnant fiancee of dedicated cop/secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (The Good, The Bad, The Weird's Byung-hun Lee) is brutally murdered by notorious serial killer Kyung-chul (Oldboy's put-upon hero Min-sik Choi) he sets about taking vengeance/justice into his own hands. That's the entire film in a nutshell, right there. But from that kernel (kernel? nut? What is it?!) a film of savage brutality and occasional, jarring beauty is crafted. The murder of Joo-yeon is utterly brutal and callous; body parts are strewn around Kyun-chul's killing floor, with Jee-woon Kim never shying away from showing the very real gruesome horror of a human being in bloody pieces. Even thinking about it now makes me a feel a little queasy, but this is all set-up and introduction into the twisted world of I Saw the Devil.
Kim Soo-hyeon feels at least partly responsible; he was, once again, away and unable to protect his love. He takes it upon himself to exact equal and bloody revenge upon her killer and methodically works his way towards Kyung-chul. To do so, he becomes something less than a man; he becomes a cold and driven vengeance machine determined to hunt Kyung-chul down and make him pay. The hunt for Kyung-chul is over relatively quickly, and Kim Soo-hyeon incapacitates him only to let him go; he's playing with Kyung-chul. Soo-hyeon can now track him and hurt him however, whenever and wherever he pleases. This is his vengeance: to hurt Kyun-chul as much as he hurt Joo-yeon. And this raises incredibly troubling issues, as Kyung-chul cannot stop brutalising and hurting people (especially women). So is each new victim then the fault/responsibility of Soo-hyeon? Not that he cares - his focus is Kyung-chul. And the the majority of this chase narrative is spent with the killer, Jee-woon all but daring us to identify with this psychopath. The question also becomes: how much can Soo-hyeon really hurt this man? Soo-hyeon can savage him physically, but can he possibly hope to do to Kyung-chul what Kyun-chul has done to his victims? How much of a monster does Soo-hyeon have to become? It's a question pretty explicitly touched upon when Kyung-chul is holed up with a fellow serial killer (the film also gives the impression of serial killers roaming the countryside around Seoul like an infestation) and they discuss how similar See-hyeon is to them.
Despite clocking in at 2 hours, 20 minutes you never feel that time as everything moves along at an incredible pace. Every scene, every confrontation is perfectly balanced and executed with some stunning photography. In the cold snow of the countryside and in the lit canyons of Seoul, there are a plethora of arresting shots; the film draws you in with its beauty even as it repulses you with its violence. And the performances are also uniformally excellent. Min-sik Choi is one of the most fascinating actors working in any country right now, utterly inhabiting the skin of Kyung-chul and almost making him a(n even more) twisted version of Oldboy's Oh Dae-su. He's somewhat hypnotic and fair counterpoint to Byung-hun Lee's emotionally shut-off fiance/hunter. You can see the pain in Byung-hun Lee but you can also see the pain channelled. You sympathise with him up to a point, but he takes you beyond that point and into much darker waters.
I Saw the Devil is an exhausting and demanding watch with no clear "hero" and bleeding with shockingly confronting violence. It demands a response from the viewer, beyond meatheaded cheering for bodily damage. It's hard to say the film glamourises the violence, as even when Soo-hyeon is beating on Kyung-chul, he is almost as bad as the killer. Jee-woon Kim doesn't shy away from showing anything; there aren't really moments of holding back or pulling away. Vengeance is unleashed and it only leads to escalation and destruction, offering no closure or catharsis.