May 14, 2011

I Saw the Devil: It's a Bittersweet Life That's More Bitter Than Before

I Saw the Devil is a high-octane thriller that's got something to teach if you can hear it over the accelerated beating of your heart. The lesson is this: A successful revenge is a Pyrrhic victory. When undercover agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) decides to play cat-and-mouse with serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) who raped, murdered then dismembered Kim's wife (Oh San-ha) and many others, he has to deal with some casualties along the way. For each time he releases his prey only to stalk him again, some innocent bystander is likely to get hit, stabbed, or choked. (If you're really unlucky, you'll suffer all three.) Soo-hyeon also submerges himself in a heretofore unconsidered freaky-scary world where mass murderers crop up time and again as if a whole underground network of interconnected sociopaths existed just below society's surface. (David Lynch would have a field day with an American remake!) So while, Soo-hyeon's got high connections within the police force — his father-in-law is Squad Chief Jang (Jeon Gook-hwan), he's going to need to draw on more than those resources to beat Kyung-chul at his own game. You see, Kyung-chul's got powerful allies too, especially one old buddy — a good-natured cannibal (Choi Moo-seong), with a violent girlfriend (Kim In-seo) — who enlightens Kyung-chul over dinner re: Soo-hyeon's "hunter" mindset. This mealtime revelation allows Kyung-chul to turn the tables at least for awhile.

Both Kim and Choi turn in hypnotic performances: Kim as per usual takes a minimalist approach, executing tasks as a form of acting then showing flashes of deep emotion at crucial points like when he's leaving the mausoleum where his wife's just been entombed; Choi chooses a flashier approach, giggling tauntingly and staring furiously at anything that gets in his way. It's a nice balance. Kim grounds the film; Choi embellishes it. I've seen a number of Kim Jee-woon's movies before (The Good, the Bad, the Weird, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Quiet Family). I Saw the Devil definitely showcases what this director does best: an extended chase scene that's punctuated by artful depictions of violence filled with horror; an adrenaline-releasing thriller fueled by one believably psychotic personality. I'm thinking particularly of A Bittersweet Life which also features Kim as a nearly-invincible-and-unquestionably-wronged man trying to survive amid an army of fists, knives, and guns. I was a big fan of that earlier effort and I'm a big fan of this one too.

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