Thursday, March 03, 2011

Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil

According to the old adage, “it takes a thief to catch a thief.” A grieving Korean secret service agent applies a similar principle to his own quest for justice. Since his quarry is a serial killer, you can expect some serious bloodletting. Straddling the K-horror and thriller genres in the tradition of Silence of the Lambs, Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (trailer here) will not be for the faint of heart when it opens in New York this Friday.

Soo-hyun was the last person to talk to his fiancée Ju-yeon before she was abducted by Kyung-chul, a merciless sexual predator. Profoundly guilt-ridden, Soo-hyun uses his connections, including Ju-yeon’s retired police chief father, to identify the leading suspects. They are all guilty of something, but at least those not involved in her murder are dispatched relatively quickly. Kyung-chul is a different story.

Soo-hyun understands merely killing his prey will not suffice. An elder statesman of sorts amongst sex fiends, Kyung-chul has to experience suffering like Ju-yeon did, if the rogue agent is to be satisfied. Thus begins a brutal game of catch-and-release. However, Kyung-chul’s cunning animal intelligence cannot be underestimated, as each successive round raises the stakes and endangers new innocents. As for Soo-hyun’s soul, it is probably well beyond redemption.

When the final credits roll, Devil will leave most viewers in a state of shock. Though there are scenes of genuinely disturbing graphic violence, this is not torture porn—not even close. In fact, it is more closely akin to Greek tragedy. Indeed, it is the emotional torment rather than physical violence that truly defines the film.

If not exactly subtle in his approach, Kim keeps the intensity amped up to nearly exhausting levels. Tightly executed every step of the way, he has crafted a relentlessly effective cat-and-mouse thriller. Granted, this is the cinematic equivalent bloody red meat, but on that level it works frighteningly well.

Though not as flamboyant as a Hannibal Lector, Choi Min-sik conveys an absolute horror show of twisted malevolence beneath his banal façade. Likewise, Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun projects a visceral sense of pain and rage. Watching them face-off is unforgettable cinema. Although she appears tragically briefly, Oh San-ha is also quite devastating as the ill-fated Ju-yeon.

Viewers who have any reservations whatsoever about Devil should steer well clear. It is a film that will stay with audiences, whether they want it to or not. Light years darker than Kim’s whiz-bang period shoot-em up The Good, the Bad, the Weird, it delivers a different batch of genre goods. For those who understand what they are getting into, Devil is a powerful film, just like a shot to the gut. Recommended with the preceding caveats, it opens this Friday (3/4) in New York at the IFC Center.