The Chinese philosopher Confucius once stated, "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." Implying that one's desire for retribution will likely lead to only further peril. In I Saw The Devil, master craftsman Ji-woon Kim (A Tale Of Two Sisters) weaves an intriguing tale that not only strongly enforces that notion, but does so in a most unconventional and absorbing manner.
Min-sik Choi (of Oldboy fame) plays Jang Kyung-chul, a sinister rapist and serial killer who has been able to keep his offensive operations out of the watchful eye of the authorities, although they have suspected him in the past. Unfortunately for the homicidal maniac, his latest victim was the daughter of an ex-police chief and was engaged to and carrying the child of secret service agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee). Using the few leads at his disposal, Agent Soo-hyeon takes a leave from work and vows to find his fiance's killer and administer a punishment far worse than death.
On the surface, I Saw The Devil appears to be setting us up for a fairly standard "cat and mouse" serial-killer film. However, when the agent eventually finds the sicko he beats him to within an inch of his life and then lets him go; but not before forcing a small tracking device down his throat. What ensues over the next hour is a very deranged game of "catch and release", where the officer follows the fiend and opens repeated cans of whoop-ass on the confounded culprit that even Chuck Norris would have to admire; with the agent always leaving the madman just physically capable enough to go yet another round when he least suspects it.
Now, as to be expected, this approach leaves a few things to be desired. The agent assumes he'll be able to prevent any further depravity before it unfolds, but he underestimates Kyung-chul's relentless survival instincts and leaves room for more innocents to come to folly. In his conviction to enact the worst revenge possible, the officer's moral compass swings perilously close to that of his nefarious nemesis. And it isn't until someone close to him is again affected, that Soo-hyeon realizes the true monster he's become and the destructive consequences of his actions.
Aside from the "victim/aggressor twist", the story itself is pretty typical of revenge films, but fantastic in execution. Ji-woon Kim proves a master at controlling all the elements of his film to best effect. The production design and cinematography are stunning; it's artistically composed and scored impeccably; and the editing is lock-tight and controlled, making the entire two-plus hours literally fly by.
In my estimation, I Saw The Devil is easily on par with such stylish serial-killer stalwarts as Silence Of The Lambs and Seven. The story is fascinating, the performances are persuasive and it is beautifully rendered. The violence levels are admittedly way off the charts, but the brutal tone seems necessary to forward the narrative along and give it its intended emotional punch. It is entirely unsettling at times and definitely not for the faint of heart; however, it's also hard not to consider it one of the most suspenseful thrillers in years.
If revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, then I Saw The Devil's particular feast is more chilling than a mouthful of ice cubes.