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BUSAN, South Korea — No one on the planet does revenge thrillers quite like the Koreans.
The industry revitalized itself and garnered global attention in the ’90s on the strength of Park Chan-Wook’s “Vengeance” trilogy, as well as countless lesser-known entries (outside of Korea) in the canon. The director’s cut of “I Saw the Devil,” with six reinserted scenes of carnage and mayhem, ups the ante to a whole new level of ferocity. Distributors and festivals that have had success with director Kim Jeewoon’s past films (“A Bittersweet Life,” the kimchi western “The Good, The Bad, The Weird”) will want to take a look at this, and a DVD life looks strong due to the controversy the film stirred up.
Secret Service agent Soohyun (Lee Byunghun, Kim favorite leading man) goes on a vengeful rampage after serial murderer Kyung-chul (Choi Minsik, “Old Boy”) kills his wife. They proceed to play a vicious game of catch and release, with Soohyun finding Kyung-chul, torturing him, and then letting him go so that he can do it all over again. This entails escalating degrees of violence that Soohyun creepily and mysteriously has no problem allowing.
On any number of levels, “Devil” is troublesome at best, offensive at worst. Yet again women have no role to play other than being brutalized and the film loses sight of its point in order to wallow in its lurid violence. The idea that exacting revenge does nothing to bring closure and only results in more misery falling by the wayside early on. The world as drawn by Kim and co. comprises sociopaths and psychopaths — including the “hero” and nothing in between.
“Devil” doesn’t come close to capturing the moral complexity of “A Bittersweet Life,” and perhaps doesn’t even want to.
But that’s not to say “Devil” doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. It’s impeccably produced, and Kim has a firm handle on every shot. The torture is creative to say the least (gentlemen should brace themselves for Soohyun’s punishment of a perceived internet porn fan), and a fight in a greenhouse stands out among a series of tense, pitch-perfect sequences and set pieces.
We know who the killer is inside of five minutes, but that does nothing to lessen the tension Kim builds throughout. By the time Soohyun collapses at the realization of what he’s done and how little he’s achieved for his exercise in sadism, Kim has launched himself into the exploitation pantheon.
A Peppermint & Company Co. production
Sales Agent: Finecut
Cast: Lee Byunghun, Choi Minsik.
Director: Kim Jeewoon.
Writer: Park Hoonjung.
Producer: Kim Hyunwoo.
Executive producers: Greg Moon, You Jun Yeong.
Director of photography: Lee Mogae.
Production designer: Cho Hwasung.
Editor: Nan Nayoung.
No MPAA rating, running time 142 minutes
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