Korean cinema appears intent on knocking out as many gore-laden revenge movies as possible of late, and now Kim Jee-Woon (A TALE OF TWO SISTERS; A BITTERSWEET LIFE) jumps on the bandwagon with this dark tale of Nietzschian conceit in which the protagonist ultimately becomes the victim of his own obsessive hatred.
Ju-yeon (Oh San-ha), daughter of retired police detective Jang (Jeon Kuk-hwan) and fiancé of respected federal agent Soo-hyan (Lee Byung-hun) finds herself stranded on a deserted country road one wintry night and is viciously assaulted by hammer-wielding psychotic, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, OLD BOY; SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE). After being dragged to his lair she’s dismembered and her remains deposited in a culvert. One of her severed ears is discovered by a small boy (in a nod to Lynch’s BLUE VELVET) and a huge forensics team sent to the area soon uncovers her decapitated head. Soo-hyan embittered at his own failings; “I was always late, never there for you”, vows to make the killer pay. Taking two weeks leave from his job, Soo-hyan tracks down several main suspects of the crime and maims them, before coming across serial killer, Kyung-chul in a greenhouse where he proceeds to smash the killer’s hand and force a GPS tracking device into his body. Kyung-chul initially believes he has accidently left for dead but it soon becomes apparent that Soo-hyan has a hidden agenda and deliberately allowed the killer to survive.
Once fully recovered, Kyung-chul finds another victim but before he can kill her, Soo-hyan is on the scene to mete out further punishment. This time his tendon is severed with a knife, a visceral scene that delivers the film’s most notorious set-piece and which tops the shocks of a similar sequence found in Chan Wook Park’s SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE.
Upon realising that his survival is down to the fact that Soo-hyan wants to repeatedly torture him, Kyung-chul attempts to play a psychological game of cat-and-mouse in which both parties are driven to increasingly despicable acts in order to maintain their own sanity. Soo-hyan fails to heed Nietzche’s warning that “He who fights with monsters might take care less he thereby become a monster” (which is misquoted on the subtitles at the film’s beginning) but appears to embrace the aphorism “What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil”. As Kyung-chul’s cannibalistic buddy Tae-joo (Choi Moo-seong) points out: “He’s our kind. He’s enjoying the excitement of going out on a hunt, catching and releasing the prey. Catching and releasing. He’s playing the hunter…Advent of a monster. How interesting.” The film is beautifully shot with artistic flourishes throughout. The opening title sequence in which the camera is positioned in the back of the Ju-yeon’s car as it makes it’s way along the dark snowy lanes foreshadows her fate as the sole light sources appear to come by the vehicle’s headlights and dashboard which take on the shape of a devilish head with horns. Throughout the movie Nietzsche’s philosophies expounded in the likes of “Beyond Good and Evil” that deny a universal morality for humankind and blur the distinctions drawn by religion are accompanied by symbolic representations of Christianity throughout. Victims are bound, and laid out like martyrs before execution; sportswear worn by the killer incorporates a cross in its design; crucifixes are displayed in homes and on church spires; a still body wrapped in plastic suddenly springs to life when the killer appears into the lair recalls the theme of death and resurrection.
The action sequences are handled well, but whilst the violence is excessive the overall shock effect is not quite as effective as similar gore scores found in other Korean thrillers with similar dynamics such as Park’s VENGEANCE trilogy (2002/2003/2005), Won Shin-yeon’s A BLOODY ARIA (2006) and Na Hong-jin’s THE CHASER (2008). One of the reasons for this is that the characterizations conform to Korean serial killer genre stereotypes that have females portrayed as obedient sex-slaves, cannibal Tae-joo associated with a slaughter-house, cack-handed police investigations, and a serial killer so demented that we know he will continue to commit atrocious crimes despite the fact that he will get caught. Whilst Choi Min-sik once more gives an effective portrayal of a killer for whom redemption is impossible due to a totally deranged personality, it is left to Lee Byung-hun’s avenging detective to thrill viewers with any tension delivered by the possible outcome of his own psychotic actions, something that both director and star just about pull off despite the enormity of the task given the parameters of the protagonist’s mindset.
The film is rather long at 140 minutes, but the pacing is so fast, and the action sequences plentiful that the film doesn’t outstay its welcome despite the plot being threadbare and is one of the better Korean psycho-thrillers of recent years.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Kim Jee-Woon
Korean language with English subtitles
Aspect ratio 16:9 - 1.78:1
Studio: Optimum releasing
Release date: Cinemas 29th April / DVD and Blu-ray 9th May 2011
Interviews / Making of Short / Teaser trailer / TV Spot
I SAW THE DEVIL