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I Saw the Devil

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I Saw the Devil

Directed by Kim Jee-woon

The world needs another serial-killer movie like it needs another hit-man-out-for-one-last-job movie. Leave it to cult fave Korean director Kim Jee-woon to come up with a twist that makes one of the hoariest screen clichés of the past decade worth watching again. Even more admirable is that Kim makes it work by combining it with another played-out screen cliché: the super-secret government operative. And more, of course, but more on that in a minute.

As I Saw the Devil opens, schlubby Kyung-chul (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik) happens across a pretty young woman stranded by the side of a snowy road, brutally beats her, and hauls her back to his lair to dismember her. Unfortunately for all concerned, Kyung-chul especially, the pretty young woman was the fiancee of earpiece-wearing agent Soo-hyeon (charismatic young Kim regular Lee Byung-hun). Soo-hyeon takes a leave of absence from work and sets about tracking down the man who slaughtered his wife-to-be. There’s something almost funny about his vicious, implacable approach to the first few scumbags on his list of suspects (the moped delivery boy, especially); he soon gets to Kyung-chul, and a similarly swift revenge would make this feature a short subject. But Soo-hyeon doesn’t want to kill Kyung-chul, at least not right away. He wants to make him suffer. And he does. And you do too, a bit.

While Kyung-chul is a reprehensible predator, Soo-hyeon’s drawn-out punishment of his nemesis is so gorno brutal, so inhumanly single-minded, that while it doesn’t make Kyung-chul sympathetic, exactly, you soon understand that I Saw the Devil’s title can be taken a number of ways. And yet, even among some of the more shudder-inducing flashes of ultraviolence seen onscreen recently, it pulls you in. Best known in the States for flashy style exercises such as gangster revenge flick A Bittersweet Life and gonzo Eastern Western The Good, the Bad and the Weird, Kim often exercises exquisite restraint here, drawing out agonizing suspense and even telling emotional moments. The magnetic Choi creates a most fascinating monster/victim, and Kim otherwise ups the revulsion/attraction ante in astounding but subtle ways: Shots of a tear pooled in the corner of the eye of a cowering victim or steam rising from brutalized body parts exposed to cold air will stick with you longer than might be comfortable. Lee’s Soo-hyeon is perhaps too subtle a character in some respects, but I Saw the Devil outstrips the bloody genre junk from which it draws to channel a ferocious vision that earns its extremity.

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