Soaked in blood and boasting a penchant for reworking old tropes into dazzling interpretations of human experience, the South Korean cinematic landscape is changing at a pace akin to the American independent movement of the late '60s and '70s. Led by Park Chan-wook (Vengeance Trilogy) and Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), Korean directors have created a distinctive brand for the nation's cinema, marked by violent visual poetry and overarching themes of fear: of aging, of the changing dynamics of the traditional family, of the elderly and of technology.
A sharp-eyed craftsman of atmosphere and action, new kid on the block Kim Jee-woon broke into the cinematic consciousness with the supernatural melodrama A Tale of Two Sisters, which effectively mined insanity and family violence while showcasing considerable restraint. Even more impressive was The Good, The Bad, The Weird, an Eastern-Western cacophony of explosions, gunfights, train heists and gleeful Tarantino-esque lunacy that grabbed unrepentantly from Sergio Leone, while proving a coherent story is irrelevant when style is the most important substance.
With I Saw the Devil, Kim attempts to combine the gloomy atmospherics of Sisters with the harried kinetics of Weird into a revenge story examining the symbiosis between good and evil. Devil, which is violent enough to have been initially banned from public exhibition by the South Korean government, opens with the savage murder of a pregnant woman at the hatchet of Kyung-Chul (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik), a snarling brute with a thing for raping and bludgeoning women to death, then skinning them. His success as a butcher is compromised when the woman's fiancé turns out to be an ass-whomping secret agent (Weird villain Lee Byung-hun) who isn't content to let the monster off the hook without visiting as much pain upon him as possible in an elaborate revenge scheme.
It's a relatively simple premise, and one that ponders the familiar question of whether lust for revenge brings out evil in the avenger. But Kim isn't interested in cat-and-mouse antics, instead pitting a rabid leopard against a calculating snake. The "hero" spends the entire film playing catch-and-release, beating and slicing Choi within an inch of his life before freeing him so they can do it all over again, with creative bloodshed rivaling Japanese sadist Takashi Miike at his most vile.
For a while, it's a nasty, slick ride. Kim stages fights and murders with panache, highlighted by a savage knife fight in a moving car. Choi in particular is terrifying, a murderous beast recalling Javier Bardem's iconic Anton Chigurh, if Chigurh were against the ropes. But unlike the other auteurs of the South Korean film renaissance, Kim doesn't find—or seem particularly interested in finding—any humanity in inhuman acts. He simply stages one unflinchingly violent scene after another. That works for something like Weird, a breezy action film, but with Devil the violence is rendered with such sinister perversity that it seems like Kim is getting off on making us squirm.
Which is part of the point, but it's that kind of indulgence that makes Devil seem self-serving. Were Kim content to make the film's run time match its rapid pace, I Saw the Devil could have been a macabre kick akin to Na Hong-jin's swift The Chaser. Instead, after more than two hours of nonstop savagery (and a wedged-in subplot about cannibals drawing it out further), it's a numbing, repetitive affair, a grindhouse film masquerading as higher art. While it makes its ham-fisted point about the nature of evil, it's so enraptured with the violence that larger meaning is lost. Kim opts instead to attack simple and derivative themes with the subtlety of a pipe wrench to the pubis…an act he's more than glad to show us in extreme close-up.
64 SEE IT: I Saw the Devil opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.