Ji-Woon Kim's new film, I Saw the Devil (2010) has already developed a rep for its elegant brutality. There's no question that it's a hard film to watch. Without the director's sense of style, it might well be unwatchable. I don't know what it is in the Korean national character that puts them so in touch with revenge, but the Korean cinema of vengeance is one of the most striking categories of film that I can think of. This is very much in the mode of Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy, though it is, perhaps, a shade more lightweight when it comes to the philosophy of vengeance. Kim's films are never deep. They are all style.
The story here follows Joo-yeon, a secret service agent played by the ever-elegant Byung-hun Lee, who, upon the murder of his fiance, tracks down the killer and exacts his revenge. The killer in question is Kyung-chul, played with a grungy, sick kind of menace by the amazing Min-sik Choi. Choi furthers the mental association with the Vengeance trilogy. His character here is more in line with the one he plays in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance than with his lead in Oldboy, but you get the picture. For his part, Kyung-chul is completely unrepentant. He has his needs, and he makes no apologies for satiating them. This is surprise number one. Given the nature of the film's plot, there must have been a strong temptation to render Kyung-chul in sympathetic terms. Perhaps not in terms of forgiveness, but at least in terms of pity. The filmmakers don't do this. Kyung-chul is NOT Peter Lorre's character in M. He's a full bore monster. Surprise number two is what Joo-yeon does once he finds Kyung-chul. He punishes him, sure. But then he lets him go. The film even comments on this in the actual text of the movie when Joo-yeon's sister asks him what the point of "catch and release" is. Joo-yeon doesn't answer, but the audience already sees the way the movie is going to go. Joo-yeon gazes too long into the abyss and the abyss gazes also into him.
As I say: Intellectually, this movie is kind of a lightweight. Its overall thesis is that vengeance is dehumanizing, but it never goes any further than that. Hell, revenge stories going back to the Jacobean era at least--hell, back to Homer, for that matter--have postulated the exact same thing. When the movie states its thesis outright about halfway through its longish running time, there's not much else to do but watch the whole clockwork assembly demolish itself. There is certainly pleasure to be had from watching it do so. Kim is nothing if not generous with his set-pieces, and, boy howdy, does he know how to film them. There is ONE scene, however, that suggests another direction for the film: Kyung-chul commandeers a taxi, kills the driver and his passenger, then finds a body in the trunk. This is an awesome "WTF?" moment that suggests an entire world gone mad. Does everyone have dark secrets? In the worldview of this movie, they most certainly do. For the record, the taxi scene is astonishing. It's one of those scenes where you look at it and wonder how the hell they did it, although this wonderment is all but overwhelmed by the violence of it. Much the same thing could be said of the movie as a whole. The last forty minutes are an endurance test. You can't really take your eyes off of it, but you can't really bear watching it, either. In some ways it's the equivalent of the Ludovico technique.
For their part, the leads give committed, well conceived performances. Min-sik Choi, as I say, lays on the menace. He's the kind of character who makes you want to take a shower after spending any amount of time in his presence. There's a scene where Kyung-chul attempts to rape a nurse that Choi plays with all the dead-eyed soullessness one ever wants to see. It's a kind of deadpan, and one can imagine it as the personality of Henry Lee Lucas or Richard Speck. This character approaches his needs like some kind of chore; murder and rape seem like an unpleasant biological function for him. Not like masturbating, perhaps--the film shows a different killer who masturbates to thoughts of his crimes--but more like removing a tick, or defecating. It's something he has to do to function and the actor makes you believe in him. If the film has an enduring value, it's in this performance. I can't imagine a better depiction of a serial killer. Byung-hun Lee, on the other hand, has a more difficult character. His character is a movie character. You can't really imagine him in real life. In this regard, the filmmakers rely on the screen personae of the actor's other roles. Joo-yeon's elegant lethality is a close cousin to Lee's performance in A Bittersweet Life. Lee certainly inhabits the role, but he's kind of hamstrung by the murky motivations provided for the character and by the "movieness" of it. He holds the screen--being ridiculously good-looking helps him in that regard--but if he spent more time sharing the screen with Choi, he might find himself swamped. It's Choi's movie, really, but both performances are worth the price of admission, regardless of what one ultimately thinks of the film's set-pieces.
So, yeah. I'm kind of ambivalent about this movie. I think I like it better than The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, if only because it forgoes the dizzying kinetic style of that movie. But that may be external circumstances asserting themselves, too. I don't think Kim is really growing as a filmmaker. One misses the delicate hand behind his earlier movies, rather than the bludgeons he's using these days. He's obviously still capable of delicacy. You see it in flashes in this movie, but only for short periods. The rest of the time, it's back to blunt force trauma. Blunt force trauma can be bracing once in a while, but not as a regular diet. I Saw the Devil is definitely worth a look if you have a stomach for it, though.