What is it about South Korea and revenge films? My overriding distaste for all but the most thoughtful and daring revenge movie largely confines my genre excursions on this subject to the national cinema of the country (as well as the work of Quentin Tarantino and the odd film like the Coens' True Grit). Perhaps South Korea's long history of exploitation at the hands of other nations -- ending only in the last half of the previous century and gaining that independence at least partially through the intervention of Western nations -- is the impetus for the desire for payback. Now that South Korea is a major economic presence, maybe they want to show others what they're made of.
I Saw the Devil, the latest by Kim Ji-woon, does not stand with the best, most insightful genre film Korean cinema has to offer, but it successfully blurs the line between hero and villain with a masterfully gory portrait of all-consuming vengeance that, to its credit, will probably revolt audiences looking for a visceral kick even more than the deliberately repulsive films of Park Chan-wook. The story of a stoic cop seeking revenge against his fiancée's killer, I Saw the Devil plays like what Christopher Nolan wishes he could have done with The Dark Knight: it takes the conflict between a psychopath and a preternaturally skilled crime fighter and grinds the pieces together so violently that the ostensible hero truly is brought down to the evildoer's level.
Using cold, crisp cinematography saturated in blue tones, Kim introduces the scenario with enough tension to drive an audience mad before they've had any time to settle in: Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha), the daughter of a retired police chief and fiancée to detective Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), drives down a remote, scarcely lit road during snowfall when her tire leaks air and strands her in the middle of nowhere. A man offers to help but cannot fix it, and all the while the camera peers at angles outside the windshield, waiting for something to happen. It finally does, and the results are brutal, immaculately choreographed and unexpectedly terrifying given how telegraphed the kill is.
Torn by grief, Soo-hyeon seeks revenge, but instead of simply tracking down down Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), the cop instead finds the killer and initiates a perverse game of cat and mouse. Soo-hyeon plants a tracer on Kyung-chul so he can burst in at any time and beat the man to within an inch of his life and depart without arresting him.
After a few such meetings, all of which involve Soo-hyeon allowing Kyung-chul to corner yet another prey before saving the day at the last second, Soo-hyeon begins to change. Lee's icy demeanor comes to embody less professionalism than unrelenting sadism, while Choi's feral madness grows contours that do not even attempt to explain his motivations but reveal his ferocious anger as self-hate manifested outward. That is not to say that the film makes us "root" for Kyung-chul; I Saw the Devil is not so simplistic. It does not seek to swap black and white but to pour them in the same can and put the thing in a shaker. No one emerges from this movie unscathed, including -- with the exception of those with the strongest stomachs -- the audience.
Kim and Lee Mo-gae navigate the twists, turns and role reversals with a diversified yet coherent style. The opening use of blue, from the overall tone to the lights inside Joo-yeon's vehicle, creates a sense of idyll but also impending doom. When an attack is imminent, the crisp frame dims into gritty, inky blacks with isolated light sources illuminating just enough to suggest the horror, and when someone flips a switch to investigate a mysterious sound, the alienating fluorescence makes the mise-en-scène even more unsettling. Kim's inventive framing defies even the most cynical expectations: when he shows a nude woman wrapped in plastic, one assumes the cops have sealed a corpse, only for her to jerk suddenly and make clear that the killer isn't through with her yet.
Unfortunately, for all Kim's control of the direction, his pacing does not reflect the same care. At 144 minutes, I Saw the Devil stretches far beyond the typical limit for a film of this nature. Viewed from a certain perspective, the overlong beginning segment and repetitive middle chases could be seen as Kim's way of de-romanticizing the quest for vengeance beyond shadow of a doubt. However, after a particularly brutal encounter at the house of Kyung-chul's cannibal friend at the 1:40 mark, I cannot fathom anyone still being even subconsciously enamored with the violence. By the time the tables turn on Soo-hyeon and then back again, the film has already dragged on a half-hour too long.
Kim rallies at the end, however, and his occasional moments of quiet reflection throughout deepen the film beyond its inventive but hollow narrative. Joo-yeon's soft "Can you please not kill me?" to Kyung-chul and the tender moment of mutual sorrow and regret between Soo-hyeon and Joo-yeon's father add texture to the movie and are as memorable as any of the action setpieces. This being Korean cinema, there are also moments of dark comedy, such as Soo-hyeon stabbing the cannibal's hand on a table and the handle popping off like a cork when the poor sod tries to pry it out. If the movie loses itself in the middle, it regains composure at the end when finally the full horror seems to hit both the cop and the killer, though by then it's too late for either.