Film Review: I Saw the Devil

Korean art-house shocker about a grieving man’s brutal revenge on his fiancée's murderer is a strictly a specialty item. But for the right audience—horror buffs both accustomed to extreme violence and willing to read subtitles—it de

A snowy night, a deserted country road and a pretty girl named Ju-Yeon (Oh San-ha), stranded by a flat tire: No good can come of this classic horror confluence, and none does. As Ju-Yeon, who’s just learned that she’s pregnant and is returning home from one of her regular visits to a rural orphanage to surprise her sleek fiancé Kim Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun, of 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) with the good news (it’s also her birthday), exchanges romantic banter with Kim by phone, a middle-aged man pulls up in a school van and offers to help. Kim tells her to wait for the auto-club tow truck, but the stranger abruptly shatters her window and batters Ju-Yeon with a hammer as Kim listens in impotent horror. The attacker rapes and murders her in the torture chamber hidden behind his rundown house, then scatters the bloody scraps of her dismembered body.

The police investigate Ju-Yeon’s disappearance aggressively—her father is retired, highly respected officer Jang Kyung (Jeon Gook-hwan)—and quickly locate her abandoned car, the driver’s-side seat streaked with blood. But only sheer chance—a child finds an ear in a plastic bag—leads them to her severed head. Section Chief Oh (Jeon Ho-jin) promises the grieving survivors he’ll bring the killer to justice, but that’s not enough for Kim. He takes a two-week leave from his job at the National Intelligence Service, calls in favors to obtain a high-tech tracking device and the case files on the four main suspects, all of whom have been convicted of similar crimes, and begins his own investigation. The first two suspects don’t pan out—though Kim puts both in the hospital on general principal—but the third, a disreputable, middle-aged loner named Kyung-Chul (Choi Min-sik), who drives a school van, sets Kim’s radar to humming.

Kim quickly catches up to Kyung-Chul, too late to save the young woman he abducted at a bus stop but in time to prevent the rape and murder of a schoolgirl, and beats the hell out of him. But he stops short of killing Kyung-Chul, who wakes up battered, confused and clutching an unexplained envelope full of cash. He flees, murdering a cabbie, a thug and a small-town doctor, but as he sexually abuses his last victim’s nurse, Kim again intervenes. Having already broken one of Kyung-Chul’s hands, Kim slashes an Achilles tendon. Kim’s intentions are now clear: He’s going to fulfill his promise to make Kyung-Chul suffer as much as Ju-Yeon did before he dies. Their gory cat-and-mouse game escalates exponentially before coming to its monstrous conclusion.

Long before American filmmakers embraced torture porn, their Asian counterparts were gleefully competing to see just how far they could go. Director Kim Jee-woon, whose credits include the chilling 2003 Tale of Two Sisters (blandly remade in 2009 as The Uninvited) and a segment of 2002's 3 Extremes II, is clearly taking his cues from Park Chan-wook’s legendary (or notorious, depending on your point of view) vengeance trilogy, two of which—Oldboy and Lady Vengeance—also starred Choi Min-sik. But he’s less an imitator than an acolyte, and comes up with his own unique twists, notably Kyung-Chul’s sojourn at a country inn run by his cannibal friends. I Saw the Devil is by its nature a polarizing film, but one that makes no bones (if you will) about what it is, fully embracing its horrifying nature.