Korean cinema has churned out its fair share of revenge thrillers, chief among them being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy. Kim Ji-Woon’s I Saw the Devil might not be as good as these films, but it is a solid revenge thriller that abandons any pretence of satisfaction and keeps piling on the tragedy.
Choi Min-sik plays Kyung-chul, a serial killer with a taste for young pretty women. He has been able to get away with his killings for quite a while, until one day he murders and mutilates the daughter of a former police chief and fiancé of a state policeman. The fiancé, Dae-hoon, played by Lee Byung-Hun, turns extremely quickly to revenge. But he is not going to just kill Kyung-chul; he is going to hunt him down, and each time they meet, he will break a few bones and then send the killer on his way; that way Kyung-chul will suffer as long and as much as possible.
This quick turn to revenge might seem a little too fast to be believable, but Kim is dispensing with the formalities. The audience is not meant to question the why of Dae-hoon’s revenge or in many ways the why of Kyung-chul’s murders. Is Kyung-chul crazy just because he murders? His encounters with cab drivers and pharmacists are reminiscent of Anton Chigur in No Country for Old Men, minus the insanity; that is to say, Kyung-chul is horrible and evil, but not necessarily unhinged. He just hates people. Dae-hoon seems aware that there will not be any satisfaction or peace for him once Kyung-chul is dead; but still he must seek it. As the cat-and-mouse game continues, it escalates in the most vicious ways, each man finding more horrible ways to maim or kill and by extension hurt the other. Kyung-chul has no reason to do this other than his nature; without emotional investment his can be as cruel as he wants. Dae-hoon is nothing but emotional investment, and so the result is the same.
At almost two and a half hours, the film runs about 20 minutes too long. And perhaps it is not necessary to be as graphic in its violence. But, perhaps Kim is making a point as to the nature and result of revenge. Kim frequently uses extreme close-ups and confined spaces to encourage the audience to think about the faces of these men, and which one is the devil, or if they both are. One cannot help but feel that Kyung-chul deserves what he gets, but when Dae-hoon’s actions leads directly to avoidable deaths, it indicates that he is not necessarily any better than the devil. Revenge served hot will get you burned.