This morning I saw a press screening of Kim Jee-woon's I Saw The Devil, which opens in Los Angeles and New York City next week and rolls out to other cities after that. The bad-cop-versus-serial-killer/revenge movie is both glossy and gritty, with amazing production value, a gorgeous visual style, and no-holds-barred depictions of violence and man's capacity to do evil (to women and each other). Both seasoned fans of cinema and hardened fans of gore are given mountains of conversation topics to match the piles of naked, dismembered bodies.
It's hard not to think of Silence of the Lambs during the opening as the serial killer played by Choi Min Sik (Oldboy) drives around in his creepy vehicle looking for prey–in this case, the fiance of a special police agent played by Lee Byung-hun (A Bittersweet Life, JSA). As the former continues on his sadistic spree, the latter begins his own bloody manhunt. Neither actor's character is given much background or exposition, but that isn't really the point. Despite the foes' different backgrounds, their actions become identical and are portrayed in shining, sickening detail as they call each other “bastard” the entire time.
It isn't a perfect movie. Audiences looking for plot nuances, gray areas, turning points should go somewhere else, and even die-hard fans of revenge cinema will find the antagonist's friends to be conveniently creepy and wonder why a hungry cannibal wouldn't seek out plumper victims. But the director of the masterful horror movie, A Tale of Two Sisters, and the hybrid Western, The Good, The Bad, And The Weird, takes the manliest of genres–slasher films, violent cop movies, revenge cinema–and turns them into an undeniable dynamo of an experience. Although the movie clocks in at 240 minutes, the tension never wanes for one moment. Audiences may feel trapped by the escalating violence but they will never be bored or feel that the director, actors, or crew are just mailing it in.
Yes, the special agent's cat-and-mouse game can be as torturous for the viewer as it is for his wife's killer. And if the devil is a fallen individual who gets off on tempting flawed people to do wrong, then that's exactly what the cop does. The dynamic that results is truly difficult. It's hard to root for the hero and impossible to have pity for the bad guy, but no audience member will leave without feeling exausted, confused, and brutalized. I Saw The Devil is a no-win situation presented in a stunning fashion–a real, rare gift for the few who dream of being flattened in a movie theater.