I Saw the Devil / Kim Jee-woon / 2011 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Visual wit; Acting; Pace and energy
Side Effects: Ending; Revenge movie cliches

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ver the past decade, Korean filmmakers have breathed new life into genre filmmaking, made listless by so many bland American entries. Bong Joon-ho in particular has produced an amazingly strong filmography demonstrating his unique skill at handling disparate tones, making his films unpredictable but always under control. With I Saw The Devil, Kim Jee-woon proves that he has the skill and vision to match his peers.

The film is a dark and twisted tale of torture and violence—a look into the face of evil—and yet a pronounced style, a strong sense of pacing and unexpected moments of levity and even humor keep the film from feeling laborious. Its tone is definitely somber and its violence unflinching, but the film takes place in a heightened universe where villains pursue evil with gusto and relish. Choi Min-sik stars as a vicious serial killer: one of the scariest and most memorable bad guys in recent memory. He hunts down and dismembers women, but is just as frightening and menacing with his words and crazed cackle as with his arsenal of knives, hatchets and other weapons.

Choi’s unhinged performance is nearly matched, though, by Lee Byung-hun, a charismatic presence who convincingly dramatizes a cop’s descent into madness. Out to avenge the death of his wife, Lee tracks down the murderer. Rather than killing him, however, Lee feeds him a tracking device and releases him, preferring to repeatedly track down and torture the murderer. Blinded by revenge, Lee enjoys the hunt and slowly becomes as dedicated as the master villain himself. These themes are not exactly new to revenge films, but Kim imbues them with visual wit and the emotional aspects of the film feel very convincing.

I Saw the Devil is not afraid to reach for laughs, even as the blood flows freely. Violence this extreme can be irreverent or confrontational, but when it’s done with this much energy and originality, it’s hard not to enjoy it.

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