I Saw the Devil 

A twisted, marvelous killer-thriller from South Korean master Kim Jee-woon

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I Saw the Devil

5 stars

(NR)

Most serial killer thrillers would end with the cop catching the culprit, but that part comes just when I Saw the Devil is getting warmed up.

See, if you're going to rape and kill women who are isolated in the countryside, stuck with a flat tire perhaps, don't rape and kill the pregnant gal who's already engaged to an agent of South Korea's secret service. Of course, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) does just that, and thus incurs the wrath of a very determined, very skilled Soo-hyeun (Lee Byung-hun), who would much rather play a grisly game of catch-and-release with the psychopath than kill him outright.

This recurring revenge play takes a marked physical toll on our increasingly frustrated villain and a more subdued emotional toll on our increasingly ruthless hero, and director Kim Jee-woon strings us along, lacing the proudly excessive violence with a wickedly dark sense of humor and grounding it with a genuinely conflicted sense of morality. Granted, the monster-begetting-a-monster thesis is nothing new, but the shifting dynamic remains fascinating to watch throughout.

Jee-woon gave the ghost story a try with A Tale of Two Sisters (remade in the states as The Uninvited) and livened up the spaghetti western with The Good, The Bad, The Weird, and his take on the serial killer thriller here is audacious enough to rival the likes of Oldboy, The Chaser and other Korean revenge films. The man has already established himself as a modern master of tone and technical prowess, and some of these shots are simply marvelous to behold regardless of context (namely, a dizzying encounter within a taxi).

At a running time of nearly two and a half hours, Devil is nothing if not indulgent, but as Soo-hyeun's bloodlust knows no bounds, neither does screenwriter Park Hoon-jung's imagination. Our protagonist has gadgets and gall to spare, much to the chagrin of the police chief/would-be father-in-law. Kyung-Chul, meanwhile, may be frustrated by having his dominant streak disrupted, but he's almost admiring of his opponent's determination. The two leads play off of one another with tremendously vicious chemistry, each giving their own subtly weary performance, and Jee-woon keeps the pace tight and camera close every step of the way.

It's a police procedural that upends conventional design with a smirk on its face, a genre exploration that pushes and pushes without failing to consider the human consequences of such a campaign, and - at the very least - it's a riveting confrontation between dwindling good and limitless evil. I Saw the Devil may seem like it doesn't know when to quit, but neither does our hero, and in the end, one has to wonder why American filmmakers can't be half as ballsy when playing their own cat-and-mouse games with audiences and their expectations.

More by William Goss

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