The idea that revenge corrodes the soul of the avenger is an old theme in vigilante movies, perhaps because it’s the only moral route down an exceedingly dark path; otherwise, retribution and lawlessness rule the day. Korean director Park Chan-wook explored this theme thoroughly in a trilogy bookended by 2002’s Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and 2005’s Lady Vengeance, and epitomized by the 2003 cult smash Oldboy, a mega-revenge tale set to an operatic pitch. Enter Park’s countryman Kim Ji-woon, a gifted genre alchemist who fused J-horror style with florid melodrama in 2003’s A Tale Of Two Sisters and Eastern-ized the spaghetti Western with 2008’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Not to be outdone, Kim goes to ever-nastier extremes with I Saw The Devil, but he also extends the revenge theme into a mesmerizing study of the nature of evil itself.
Executed in high style, with a narrative coherence that sometimes eludes Park, I Saw The Devil opens with serial killer Choi Min-sik (star of Oldboy) claiming his latest victim, a female driver caught with a flat in a snowstorm. Turns out the woman’s fiancé, played by Lee Byung-hun, is an ass-kicking special agent who receives the news stoically, then sets about finding the perpetrator and making sure he pays dearly for the crime. Using a high-tech GPS capsule that makes him constantly aware of Choi’s location, Lee seeks to torment before he kills, hoping to make Choi feel the same fear and pain he inflicted on Lee’s wife-to-be. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game that twists and turns and escalates in tension as it unfolds.
It should come as no surprise that Lee’s spectacular quest for revenge comes back to haunt him, but I Saw The Devil is less about that than about the immutability of evil, which can’t be transformed or obliterated, but simply exists, cold and black, as a force of absolute destruction. Lee looks into the abyss and the abyss looks back at him, with a twinkle in its eye. Though Kim’s penchant for black comedy makes it more palatable, I Saw The Devil is still a nasty piece of work, extreme even by the hair-raising standards of extreme Asian cinema. But for stout-hearted genre aficionados—“sickos,” if you will—it’s essential viewing.