The Klingons said it best: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” In cinematic terms, a long, drawn-out plan for revenge can be the most viscerally fulfilling. With few exceptions, the U.S. is best at making post-9/11 vengeance flicks that satiate the bloodlust within us all. Meanwhile, over in South Korea, the best of their vengeance fare tends to be the most well-rounded. Bloodlust is definitely satisfied, but it is tempered with copious amounts of regret and sadness. While each film in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, from Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance to Oldboy and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance explored the same theme with different stylistic and genre influences, the ending has always been the same: the exhilarating high is short-lived while the consequences and casualties are forever.
Enter Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil, a film that revisits the well-worn trail for the bazillionth time, but as films like Unforgiven and The Fighter have illustrated in the past, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same old song as long as it’s sung well.
In the first minute of the film, the audience is thrust headfirst into a snowy landscape as a discomforting stranger offers a stranded motorist a ride. The stranger, portrayed by Choi Min-sik of Oldboy fame, is Kyung-chul, a murderous psychopath. The stranded motorist is Joo-yeon, daughter of a retired police chief and fiance to Soo-hyun. With Kyung-chul repeatedly knocking on her window while her fiance advises her by phone to ignore him, the suffocating tension of the scene transcends the screen. Her head is found floating in a nearby lake soon after.
Thanks to his job as a secret agent, Soo-hyun (portrayed by Lee Byung-hun) eventually discovers the killer’s identity through a gruesome process of elimination. Their eventual face-off leaves Kyung-chul half-dead. But Soo-hyun, despite appearances, did not fail in his mission to kill the man who destroyed his life. Like a reverse cat-and-mouse game, Soo-hyun instead terrorizes the violent killer endlessly, interrupting Kyung-chul’s rampages by putting the madman closer to death with each progressive assault. As Soo-hyun falls deeper into the abyss of vengeance, he ignores warnings from friends and family. Naturally, Soo-Hyun’s game threatens to turn on him.
Like Min-sik’s portrayal in Oldboy, the actor has channeled his maniacal side for I Saw the Devil. But while in Oldboy his intensity was chaotic, this time it’s unnervingly calm. Attention should also be given to Byung-hun, another alum of Chan-wook’s work. His portrayal of Soo-hyun is heartbreaking as the viewer watches a smart man descend into a madness that turns him into a vengeful monster.
It could be said that good art is supposed to make us feel all our emotions. It saddens, disturbs, frightens, surprises, and angers. This film is good art. But as much as there is to laud about the movie, there is one question. At the risk of sounding overly sensitive, is it really necessary to have a rape scene? We know that Kyung-chul is a psychopath with a gleeful taste for murder. His tendency to behead his victims was a pretty good demonstration of his cruelty. Rape and child abuse seem to be the go-to when studios don’t trust their audience’s instincts to think murder is evil enough. Maybe studios are right in their assumptions; we do love our rape-heavy court shows and forensic files.
While this complaint is a little off topic, I Saw the Devil is a good movie. Though Jee-woon has successfully waded in thriller waters over his film career, with movies like A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life, he has given this project extra depth beneath the brutality and blood. The film seems to morph from a gory horror movie to high-octane thriller to morose drama over its 142-minute running time. I Saw the Devil will leave the viewer despondent, but this isn’t a bad thing. Kim Jee-woon’s main goal is to shine a light on the price that vengeance carries. Mission accomplished.