A dish best served cold
Chan-Wook Park's epic Vengeance trilogy was an admirable and largely successful experiment. The Korean auteur crafted three unique rifts on themes of revenge. Oldboy may be the most widely known, but the plights of Mr. and Mrs. Vengeance were equally fresh and insightful takes on one of cinema's classic genres. They weren't always perfect - Mrs. Vengeance particularly - but they were all fascinating. One might have thought Park got a last word of sorts having completed a project of such scope. Looking at the likes of Taken, it's not hard to recognise the standard revenge film can seem more than a little basic in comparison. However, Japan's recent Confessions proved that there's vibrancy and originality left in the angry parent on a mission film. Not one to be outdone by their neighbors, though, another of South Korea's great contemporary masters of genre has swooped in with the glorious I Saw the Devil - a film that makes even Oldboy seem tame.
Jee-Woon Kim is no stranger to fans of Asian cinema. He's proven himself a man capable of bending even the most well worn of genres into something refreshing and enjoyable, much like his fellow country man Joon-Ho Bong. After his gloriously mental Eastern-Western The Good, the Bad and the Weird, I Saw the Devil sees him breaking the rules while remain loyal to genre roots. The film opens with the death of a young woman at the hands of Kyung-Chul (Min-Sik Choi - who you might recognise as the elderly boy who ate a live squid). Unfortunately for him, the woman in question was not only the daughter of the chief of police, but also the fiancee of Byung-hun Lee (Kim Soo-hyeon, back with Kim after TGTBTW), a top government agent. Oops. Lee quickly takes matters into his own hands, determined to dish out some cold revenge.
So far, so standard. What surprises is that the film reaches the spot the typical revenge film concludes at after a mere forty minutes. The film then continues on for another hour and a half. It quickly becomes apparent that the stereotypical Taken-esque plot is a mere extended first act here to establish the characters. Lee has a much more in-depth revenge plot planned for Kyung-Chul, one that plays out over almost 150 minutes of hyper violence, pitch black comedy and frequent role reversals. If anyone has seen the Chaser, the plot structure is similar in some ways to that - taking an established genre, and continuing on well past the obvious end point through clever subversion of expectations.
The joy is very much in the discovery here, so I'll leave it there on plot details. It'll keep you engaged on many levels. The first is performances. Kudos must go first to Choi, now the victim of revenge in contrast to his most famous role, as the demented antagonist - he's a psycho-killer up there with the best of them. There are only the most minor of hints at his ultimate motivation - he is merely a bloodthirsty lunatic. Indeed, given chances at redemption, he inevitably returns to his old ways - unable to survive without frequent homicide, sexual assault or other unpleasant acts of depravity. Is he the devil of the title? He's certainly a powerful representation of pure evil. However, the title hints at greater ambiguity. We also have Soo-hyeon as the grieving bringer of vengeance. He soon realises he's far from the justice keeper his motivations might suggest. Instead, as his revenge becomes more intricate, his humanity is called into question too. He remains a fundamentally moralistic person, obsessed with punishing only those who "deserve" it. Kim doesn't ignore the moral complications of his actions though. There's no winning in the subverted game of cat and mouse that ultimately plays out. As the manic Kyung-Chul frequently informs the man chasing him, "You've already lost". No-one here is rewarded.
The story and performances are tied together with beautifully intense direction from Kim. Ever the one for laughs in the most unexpected of places, there are pitch black laughs to be had amongst the penetratingly grim visuals and atmosphere. Set pieces are delivered with a mix of almost unbearable tension and borderline slapstick delivery. Deliriously physical and vibrant action sequences take place in wonderfully realised settings - notably a greenhouse and an old mansion. Now is as good a time as any to flag the extreme violence - this isn't for the faint-hearted, and there are certainly moments when even the hardiest audience member will grimace uncomfortably. This, though, isn't violence for violence sake - it's a much more accomplished vision than that, all adding to the overall atmosphere and directorial delivery. Also, both the music and the sound design are surprisingly excellent - even the infrequent 'jumpy' scares are well delivered with an inventive soundtrack.
I Saw the Devil is simply a great film. It's one that's expertly made, and always kept afloat by two astonishing lead performances. There are a few problems - in order to keep the chase going, a few illogical liberties are taken: South Korean nurses and policemen seem particularly inattentive and inept, it would seem. It's a small problem, and an understandable one, but occasionally distractingly obvious. Otherwise, though, you're dealing with a true rip-roaring rampage of revenge. As it concludes on a note of emotional intensity and moral ambiguity, it's hard not to be impressed. I Saw the Devil manages to make two and a half hours fly by (well, when you're not on the edge of your seat). Some might see it as a little repetitive and overwrought. For me, though, it was one of the most intense films I've seen in recent times. The revenge film is alive and kicking ass.