Director Kim Jee-woon and Lee Byung-hun are turning into Korea’s own Scorsese and De Niro. After flopping around the industry for a while and getting notice on and off for his interesting, if uneven, films (The Quiet Family, The Foul King), international audiences sat up and took note of Kim’s segment in the horror anthology Three. A year later A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) really made a splash. Imperfect though it was, Sisters had a certain amount of chutzpah vis-à-vis Korean horror at the time, with just enough twists and turns to juice the genre and extend its shelf life. Then, in 2005, came A Bittersweet Life.
That film did two things. First, it launched Kim into the upper echelon of the Korean urban crime drama club. Slick, taut, nihilistic and unglamorously violent, it has since become a touchstone for Korean gangster dramas and set the bar pretty high for other filmmakers working in the same genre (and they are myriad in Korea). Second, while Lee was already a “star,” it fundamentally changed the nature of his shiny. Goodbye matinee idol, pretty-boy manchild, hello Serious Actor with actual, adult sex appeal and the stones to play vaguely unsympathetic characters. Kim and Lee’s second outing together, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, wasn’t quite the kimchi Western success they’d hoped for, but at least it was different. It wasn’t a pedestrian rom-com, or a toilet humour comedy, or a dying spouse weepy. A little credit is due.
Evidently the pair were scared away from creativity by that relative failure, and so they’re back to doing what gave both their careers a jolt to begin with. Venturing in Park Chan-wook revenge thriller territory, I Saw the Devil is what you’d get if a methed-out Park fed his cast crack-laced panchan and jazzed the crew with ecstasy. In other words, it will be hard for the next revenge thriller out of the ROK to top this.
Soo-hyun (Lee) is highly skilled (natch!) secret service agent whose pregnant fiancée is pleasure serial killer Kyung-chul’s (Choi Min-sik going Oldboy on steroids) latest victim. Detective Oh (Cheon Ho-jin, Daisy) has been after Kyung-chul for forever, but is always a step behind. Soo-hyun, however, has the unique skill set and connections — his fiancée’s dad is a retired police captain — to get the job done. (Best not to ask why Oh can’t tap the same information.) Thus begins a methodical cat and mouse game that sees Soo-hyun metamorphose into the same kind of psychopath as Kyung-chul.
Needless to say, this raises all manner of conundrum, chief among them where the moral line should be drawn — by both Soo-hyun and Kim. Long before he has his own epiphany about the lack of value in the concept of equalising bloodlust Kim confuses commentary with collaboration. Soo-hyun’s MO is supposed to elicit sad condemnation of him and his actions but it also allows Kim a vicious playground to gallivant in.
Soo-hyun repeatedly finds Kyung-chul by tagging his car with some kind of fancy-schmancy government-issue tracking gadget (probably made by Samsung) and repeatedly allows him to victimise random women (you don’t say?). Soo-hyun eventually comes to the rescue, just in time to gleefully torture Kyung-chul himself. Rinse and repeat. Net result? Kim wallows in exploitive gore and thereby negates the moralising about vengeance exacting a high price on the vengeful. It is hard to condemn violence as an answer when Kim’s (and DOP Lee Mo-Gae’s) camera gives the ghastliness an almost emollient, worshipful gaze. There’s a fine line between satire and/or critique and drinking the Kool-Aid and Kim tilts right over into a big, red jug of exploitation cinema pseudo-juice.
Questionable filmmaking and mixed messages aside, there are some spectacular set pieces and utterly creative deaths and maimings if you can get past the hypocrisy inherent in the story, or rather the disconnect between story, message and execution. This is polished, high grade, graphic stuff that supposedly sent members of the veteran festival audiences at TIFF to the lobby and/or restrooms. Though it becomes exhausting Lee and Choi totally commit to their roles and the focused enthusiasm with which they throw themselves into them makes for some intense, squirm-inducing moments. Check out a car-bound knife fight, a greenhouse chase, Kyung-chul’s cohort with, shall we say, unsavoury eating habits (I will never pillory vegemite again!) and the final haunted house showdown. Then there are Soo-hyun’s practise runs on sex offenders that crop up on a list of suspects. Put it this way: gentlemen, you will cringe.