Directed by: Kim Ji-woon || Produced by: Kim Hyung-woo, Jo Sung-won, Kim Jae-young, Kim Jung-hwa
Screenplay by: Park Hoon-jung || Starring: Choi Min-sik, Lee Byung-hun, Jeon Kuk-hwan, Chun Ho-jin, Oh San-ha, Kim Yun-seo, Choi Moo-sung, Kim In-seo
Music by: Mowg || Cinematography by: Lee Mo-gae || Edited by: Nam Na-yeong || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean
Running Time: 144 minutes
Korean hits that make it to big city theatres or film festivals Stateside are, generally speaking, awesome and fucking brutal. I’ve said it many times before so I won’t bore readers with repetitive exposition, but the Korean film industry (or at least its internationally recognized cream of the crop) is as good as any on the planet right now (generally better), and it’s dark thrillers are particularly entertaining, well-written, and artfully directed. And really God damned dark. And brutal, and bloody.
The most impressive thing about quality Korean crime-thrillers like Oldboy (2003) or Memories of Murder (2003) or Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil is how universally satisfying they remain despite being so dark and gory. Great films can appeal to, or at least impress, viewers of any disposition or genre-inclination. Not everyone and their grandma may rush to see an Oldboy or Mother (2009) multiple times, particularly if they’re not Korean, but the fact that Korea’s cinematic creme dela creme is so universally respected by movie-lovers is indicative of the national film culture’s quality.
I Saw the Devil is one of the darkest and bloodiest modern Korean thrillers yet. It rivals Oldboy in terms of morbid narrative material and violent deaths, yet maintains a stylistic and thematic prowess all its own. Ironically enough, Oldboy’s lead, Choi Min-sik, stars opposite “hero” Lee Byung-hun as ISD’s despicable serial-killer villain. The film is a delicious and depraved cat-and-mouse game where the line between cops and killers is blurred, inverted, and ultimately ripped to shreds. ISD somehow manages to maintain the viewer’s sympathy toward Lee no matter how deep he descends, probably because Choi is such a pitch-perfect, batshit-crazy antagonist.
In many ways, ISD could be summarized as a what-if(?) scenario where an action-hero is dropped into a seedy crime-drama, much like how Predator (1987) featured a commando team dropped into a sci-fi horror premise, and how Predator 2 (1990) dropped a like-minded renegade cop into a sci-fi horror story. Hey, those Predator movies are deeper than I thought!
In any case, ISD is paced to perfection and stages its deadly games of
cat-and-mouse seek-and-destroy/torture like an opera of crime-drama madness. Just when you think the story has reached its darkest and most morally decrepit point, it plunges even deeper down the rabbit hole. ISD ratchets this character-drama patiently, artfully, creeping its camera around this seedy universe of emotional destruction and increasingly hollow alpha-male violence. It’s so bloody, gory, and violent, yet its story is so captivating both because and despite all that.
In spite of or because of all the blood and guts and endless painful ways for characters to die, ISD is superbly crafted cinema. It’s a great story no matter how you look at it; you care about its characters, and their adventures are filmed and edited so precisely, that heads will literally roll in this movie and you can’t take your eyes off the screen. That is powerful filmmaking.
Suffice it to say, ISD is not for the feint of heart, nor does it make for light, escapist movie-nights. It’s hardcore cinema that musters as much character-drama as the richest, most melodramatic Bollywood or Hollywood blockbuster. I thought I would eventually get tired of these insanely dark, bloody Korean thrillers at some point, but I’m still hungry for more. That’s the difference between these stylized crime-dramas and, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or even comic book-movies in general — one staple is consistent and knocks cinematic projects out of the park year after year, and the other … is owned by Disney.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Kim Ji-Woon’s immaculate, painstakingly detailed rendition of Park Hoon-jung’s dark, morbid tale of revenge gone-awry is near flawless. I was never bored, the film never dragged nor did it rush, and its ending was a punch in the gut. Tarantino himself would be proud. Lee and Choi give performances of a lifetime, though they’re both used to giving them by now. They are quite literally the yin to the other’s yang.
— However… Lee’s character’s legal immunity is more than a little incredulous.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? Revenge is a dish best served ice-cold, my friends.