One of the fun things about South Korean cinema is how it has a distinct storytelling style and a willingness to cross lines that Western moviemakers won’t even think of approaching. The end result are movies that often explore dark and disturbing territory, but not necessarily in a Grand Guignol manner. These are stories fueled by darkness and leave a lasting impression long after the final credits finish rolling. It says a lot about how much South Korea values its cinema that it passed a quota law mandating a minimum number of screening days for domestic films, to protect against the cultural erosion caused by imported foreign films. Too bad they felt a law was needed here; the strength of their content should be enough to protect their film industry. Case in point: I Saw the Devil, a remarkably effective psychological thriller that is South Korean to its core and could have been made nowhere else.
The story involves a serial named Jang Kyung-chul. One night, he happens upon a young pregnant woman trying to fix her flat tire on a lonely road, and so he abducts, tortures and kills her, scattering her body parts and moving on. What Kyung-chul doesn’t know, however, is that his latest victim is the daughter of a well-connected police squad chief, as well as the finance of Kim Soo-hyun, a talented and driven agent with the National Intelligence Service—a hybrid police and spy agency with effectively limitless investigative powers. Soo-hyun vows to his would-be father-in-law that he will avenge this atrocity, and furnished with a list of suspects, he begins his work with ruthless efficiency. Soo-hyun quickly discovers that Kyung-chul is indeed the killer, but rather than turn him in or kill him, he begins a game of cat-and-mouse with him. He knocks Hyung-chul out, plants tracers on him, catches him, wounds him, lets him go, and repeats the process. No dummy, Kyung-chul realizes he’s earned the attention of a very rough customer and puts all of his own devious skills to the test as he tries to stay one step ahead of Soo-hyun, hoping to turn the tables on him. What results is an increasingly bloody, twisted and internecine game of one-up-manship that leaves no side untouched. Eventually, this ceases to be a story of good guy vs. bad guy, because it’s clear there are no real heroes here, just different kinds of predator.
I Saw the Devil is a tight, gripping thriller that excels on its own terms, but it works especially well for Western audiences, who have grown accustomed to revenge stories taking a relatively predictable narrative course. This is a revenge story, sure, but the discovery and capture of Kyung-chul happens so early in the film, we realize this isn’t about just catching a bad guy and subjecting him to your form of justice. It’s about exploring how deep one’s need for justice might go, and at what point justice takes one twist too many and becomes something as monstrous as what it was supposed to address.
What makes I Saw the Devil so much fun is how quickly the narrative expectations turn. It becomes very clear that Soo-hyun is the apex predator and Hyung-chul is his prey. There are no stakes in seeing if Soo-hyun will succeed in his appointed task, and the filmmakers know it, so the story shifts to Hyung-chul’s perspective as he frantically tries to understand who is coming after him and why. We are never meant to sympathize with Hyung-chul, who is clearly an evil psychopath, but we do want to know what it would take for the guy to survive against a secret agent who is at the top of his game, has the legal power to go wherever he wants, and is driven by an all-consuming mission to extract the most severe kind of vengeance possible. This is where the movie enters its most interesting territory, including an interlude when Hyung-chul turns to the serial killer community for help. That there is a network of these people all doing their thing is a creepy detail made even more so by the fact that Soo-hyun doesn’t seem surprised by its existence. It’s like everybody knows its there, yet somehow never goes after it until they have a personal reason to do so. That’s almost more disturbing than the killers themselves.
There comes a point when Soo-hyun’s desire to toy with Hyung-chul creates more problems than it solves, as it forces Hyung-chul to get even more crafty and devious himself. Hyung-chul isn’t going to stop killing people, and once he realizes he’s in a life-and-death struggle with Soo-hyun, he decides to take the battle to him, putting even more innocent lives in danger. That’s the moment of truth, when we realize that Soo-hyun is ultimately going to cause more damage than he might have prevented had he simply killed Hyung-chul when he first had the chance. And it is a moment that repeats itself later when we see Soo-hyun make the same realization we have made earlier. As the weight of the story’s events finally comes down on him, we are reminded of an old saying about not becoming the monsters one fights. It would be easy to criticize Soon-hyun for going too far and pushing his quarry into a desperate corner, but then again, anybody with a sense of restraint would never have taken Soo-hyun’s mission in the first place. We see what kind of monster the act of vengeance has made him become by the end of the movie, but he becomes that monster in the first 20 minutes. It just takes us a while to realize that his taste for blood and our own are the same, but only to a point. By the end of I Saw the Devil, one thing is clear: South Korea might lose one of its monsters, but it gains one back in return. The only question is how much damage this new one might inflict.