I can't think of the last American film I saw that actually made me squirm in my seat with tension and suspense, the way I did with Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil.
I mean, I don't go see torture-porn like the Saw or Hostel films, or the movies that pass for horror coming out of Hollywood. Certainly nothing - at least since Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds - has had me wriggling on the line like a fish the way I Saw the Devil did.
Make no mistake. This is a brutally, even viciously violent film. And yet Kim cranks up the suspense in such a way that it never feels sadistic instead of horrifying. The violence is never meant merely to shock but, rather, to serve the story and the characters.
Choi Min-sik (who played the title character in Park Chan-wook's Oldboy) stars here as Kyung-chul, first seen attacking a young woman whose car is pulled over with a flat tire, waiting for the tow truck. He smashes the window of her car, bludgeons her with a mallet and drags her back to his car. Then he murders and dismembers her, sluicing the blood out a grate of a workshop behind his house.
The young woman happens to be the daughter of the Seoul chief of police. She's also the fiancé of Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hyun), a government agent who decides that only he can bring the murderer, a serial killer, to justice.
He gets a list of the police's top suspects and begins stalking them one by one. With the first two, he beats them mercilessly (pummeling one man's groin with a large wrench) until he's convinced that they're not his man.
His third suspect is Kyung-chul - and he tracks the man down, catching him just as he is about to slaughter his next victim. Rather than capture or even kill Kyung-chul, however, he instead physically abuses him, leaving him bloody with a broken wrist.
Then he implants a tiny transmitter in the psychopath and lets him go. With it, Kim can track the killer and listen in on him. When Kyung-chul - who kills with the casualness of a Korean version of "No Country for Old Men"'s Anton Chigurh - next threatens a woman, Kim swoops in on him again, this time rendering him helpless before driving a spike through his heel.
This time, his catch-and-release program yields even bigger prey: not only Kyung-chul, but a pair of cannibal pals who also capture and kill young women. But after defeating Kyung-chul yet again, Kim lets slip about the transmitter - and the seemingly indestructible Kyung-chul finds a way to turn the tables.
All of the violence is brutally graphic, sometimes nauseatingly so. And yet, even as you cringe, you can't avert your eyes because Kim Jee-woon has you so invested in what will happen next. Will Kyung-chul claim another victim? Will Kim get there in time? Will any of the victims manage to fight back effectively?
Kim Jee-woon is dealing not just with the cat-and-mouse aspect of the story, but the moral element as well: that, even as Kim tries to turn Kyung-chul's existence into living hell, he is becoming a monster himself.
Lee captures this sense of dissolution that threatens Kim's moral compass - and his sense of regret when his own sense of vengeance backfires, causing misfortune to people he cares about. Choi, meanwhile, is downright scary as this seemingly unstoppable force for evil - implacable when he kills, furious when he is defeated, sneeringly amused when he figures out Kim's plan and plots his own revenge.
I Saw the Devil is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. But it will leave you feeling adrenalized and aware that you've just seen something that's put you in touch with all of your senses.
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