Devil May Cry

Kim Jee-Woon's New Psycho-Horror Film 'I Saw the Devil' Shocks And Splatters

Magnolia Pictures/Photo

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A woman is in trouble. Somewhere in a wintry backwoods, her car has broken down. A man emerges from the snow, seemingly out of nowhere, to check her tires. But he should not be doing that. Something is off. All director Kim Jee-woon needs to do is lay out the requisite accoutrements of cinematic torture - a cleaver, a chain, a body bag - for us to know how this scenario will end. And so begins "I Saw the Devil," a two-and-a-half hour knife-plunge into terrifying terrain.

"Devil" treads the realm of cinematic fantasy, far away from realism, where Korean auteur Kim solders genres that have otherwise grown tired, from faux-snuff to revenge romp, creating new ones. Right off the bloodstained bat, we're in a cinephile's dream. No doubt an ode to David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (1986), a child finds a severed ear in a cornfield; that ear belongs to the dead girl in the woods. She was Soo-hyeon's girlfriend. A secret agent of indeterminate credentials, Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), armed with little more than his fists and his wits, sets out to exact 10,000-fold retribution on Kyung-chul, played by Choi Min-sik, the leading man of "Oldboy" and no stranger to revenge flicks.

But this is no cat-and-mouse game: This is cat-and-cat if there ever was one. Both protagonists are born from the same primordial slime of obsession and compulsion. One is out to make good, or at least his relative view of it, and the other evil. But nobody can win, and they can't outsmart each other either. Soo-hyeon has opportunities to avenge his fiancee's murder - he stages them himself, in fact - but won't do it because that would take the fun out. Soo-hyeon finds as much satisfaction in protracting revenge as Kyung-chul does in being a bloodless psychopath.

Unlike the slow door creak of Kim's supernatural "A Tale of Two Sisters" (2003), this film moves at a wickedly energetic pace. Kim punctures his tapestry of horror with glimmers of absurdity and of absurd violence. To ensure this is all as much melodrama as psychodrama, Kim will throw in a ribald sexcapade or roll a decapitated head out of a box. The camp works, simply because we wouldn't be able to breathe without it.

Kyung-chul, with wispy bangs and flinty eyes, is the vilest villain since Jigsaw of the "Saw" franchise, if Jigsaw had a psychology not simply hinged on constructing elaborate murder machines. Kyung-chul is evil incarnate. If he isn't raping or ravaging, he's putting on cologne or playing guitar. In an alarming moment, Soo-hyeon discovers the killer's trophies: the bracelets and bras of his victims, all neatly arranged in a filing cabinet.

Soo-hyeon, Kyung-chul's moral converse, deploys extreme means to sate his thirst for recompense. His only Achilles' heel is his hubris: Soo-hyeon is all too willing to enact his own elaborate fantasy at the cost of others, but the brooding intensity of Lee Byung-hun's performance has us rooting for him, even as we're kept at an ethical distance. As Soo-hyeon narrows in on his target in the film's denouement, Kim refuses to indulge his audience's bloodlust and instead serves up a cold dish of moral ambivalence. Soo-hyeon and Kyung-chul are left puzzling their interlocked fates, as are we. Something inscrutably cosmic has brought these two together.

Kismet claptrap aside, Kim Jee-woon's film is just as potent on a sensory level. Our minds, eyes and ears are subject to the same defamation as the body parts abound in the film, but that makes it thrilling to watch. At its gut, the lurid phantasm of "I Saw the Devil" is a profoundly horrifying experience.

Enact your own elaborate fantasy with Ryan at [email protected]

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