It’s hard to know how interesting another country’s cinema is when all you get are a handful of films each year, but South Korea has produced some of the most interesting genre films for the last decade. From the works of Bong Joon-Ho (Mother, The Host) to Park Chan-Wook (Old Boy, Thirst), to the great adventure yarn The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Whether we’re getting the best of the best, or if there’s more to discover is hard to know, but regardless, they are some great film-makers working there today.
The latest film to hit stateside is I Saw the Devil, which takes the serial killer genre and finds a new way to make it fresh for the modern era. The film stars Lee Byung-hun (G.I. Joe’s Storm Shadow) and Choi Min-sik (star of Oldboy), as a cop and a killer whose lives become intertwined in a tale of revenge from director Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters). Our review of the Blu-ray follows after the jump.
Lee Byung-hun plays Kim Soo-hyeon, a federal agent on assignment when his fiancée gets her car stuck in the snow. Kyung Chul (Min-sik) stops to help her – which she refuses – only for him to break into her car, rape, torture, and then murder her. The film then grieves with its main character for a while, but then brings the film to its greatest invention: Kim decides that it isn’t enough to arrest the man who did this to his lady, but he wants to make him suffer. And so he finds him. And beats him up. And then lets him go, only to follow him wherever he goes.
Kim’s goal is to make Kyung suffer. But what he doesn’t understand is how to hurt someone whose entire existence is based on causing other’s pain. And therein lies what makes this film great (or near-great): it takes the post-modern view of serial killers and finds a way to make it relevant after September 11, 2001. There’s no denying that pursuit of this serial killer, and finding a way to get revenge is meant to parallel the war on terror, and that’s where the film gets its great strengths. What does it mean to become a monster to hurt and kill a monster?
But the director also sees this as a comic book story, and so another thing that makes the film work is that the world is populated with serial killers – who in some cases are friends. There is no dark and deserted highway that doesn’t have some crafty predator lurking, waiting for a person to kill. It’s cartoonish, but not to a fault, it’s a heightened reality, and the number of serial killers who keep showing up helps the film strike the right tone.
But if the film falters, it’s that pacing-wise, it’s a little slower than it should be (it feels bloated at 141 minutes), and that the ending tries to have its cake and eat it too. It feels like some punches were pulled, and it could have gone in some much bleaker and more interesting directions in the final moments. But everything that comes before is so strong, it’s a minor quibble. It’s also worth noting that like many of the filmmakers to emerge from Korea, director Kim Jee-woon’s sense of camera is elegant as all get out. You are watching a film that is well put together, well directed, and there’s no time for master shots, or close-ups for a conversation. You watch this, and you can sense that there is a visual design to everything – it enlivens the film. It’s a smart genre film that deserves to be discovered.
Magnet/Magnolia’s Blu-ray is presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. The picture quality is good, but not outstanding, and the soundtrack is fine. Extras include twenty five minutes of deleted scenes, and a making of (27 min.). The deleted scenes are substantial, but obviously cut, offering more details about the killer, and his friends, while the making of is more standard. The film’s trailer is also included.