On the trail of a serial killer
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, March 18, 2011
“Revenge is for movies,” protests a character in “I Saw the Devil,” the most gruesome Korean vengeance flick to date. The reproach makes sense, except that the tale’s protagonists — a serial killer and his pursuer — exist precisely as movie archetypes. They’re not meant to be credible as human beings in this saga, which is bloody, twisted and more than a little misogynistic.
Some of the movie’s scenes were censored in South Korea, and the American release is being billed as uncut. That should draw gore enthusiasts, but “The Devil” is not as lurid as the most notorious American slasher flicks. It’s also more skillfully made than the typical Hollywood mass-murder orgy. Director Kim Jee-woon is a born filmmaker, even if this script (written by Park Hoon Jung and adapted by Kim) is unworthy of his efforts.
Many women — and a few men — are dispatched along the way, but the movie is primarily a grudge match between the relentless killer, who drives a school bus for a living, and his equally obsessive tracker, a government special agent (although he looks more like a boy-band member). Murderer Kyung-chul is played by Choi Min-sik, star of “Oldboy,” the best-known Korean revenge picture. Agent Soo-hyun is played by Lee Byung-hun, who was “The Bad” in “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” the director’s exuberant Sergio Leone homage.
The two men become acquainted after Kyung-chul murders a young woman whose car broke down on a dark, remote road. She was Soo-hyun’s fiancee.
“The Devil’’ doesn’t bother to be a detective story. Soo-hyun takes two weeks’ leave, asks his colleagues for a list of likely suspects and brutalizes a couple of them. He locates Kyung-chul in just a few on-screen minutes, batters him into unconsciousness and then lets him go. The agent wants to enjoy the chase a little longer.
This is where a lot of viewers will check out. Allowing Kyung-chul to escape is narratively tiresome and morally disturbing. The killer is likely to claim more victims before the cat-and-mouse game ends. And, to keep the story fresh, the movie is obliged to introduce yet another psychopath, who’s even less plausible than the first.
Visually striking and artfully staged, the film boasts impressive set pieces and black-hearted physical humor. More than once, for example, a severed head rolls or spins into place with the grace and timing of a ballerina. And for those people who don’t think a severed head is ever funny? They should not see “The Devil.”
Contains extreme violence, torture, cannibalism, nudity and profanity.