(Kim Ji-Woon, 2010)
Trust Korean cinema to produce a Serial Killer Thriller so unflinchingly brutal, intense and disturbing that it had to be cut for release in Korea itself. Unlike much recent Korean genre cinema, I Saw the Devil is tonally consistent. It is dark, mournful, frightening, and bristles with tension throughout.
The set-up is simple; a serial killer abducts and murders a young woman. Her fiancee is a Government Agent, and he tracks down the killer and begins a sort of game; beating and mutilating him, then releasing him before capturing, beating and mutilating him again. The question is: what happens when the serial killer gains the upper hand?
Kim Ji-Woon is a great pulp director, capable of composing scintillating action sequences, and there are a couple of terrific examples of that talent here. But he has been indulged somewhat both here and in his previous film, the messy if entertaining Western pastiche of The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and this film runs 140 minutes, at least 50 minutes longer than it needs to. That running time allows for a very deliberate pace, however, and scenes are allowed to breathe, tension seeping into the film gradually at certain points and exploding into savage violence. And it is savage; limbs and heads are lopped off, genitals hammered, stabbings and sashings are graphic and bloody.
The length also allows for a rambling story; an interlude with the serial killer's cannibal pal is particularly black-humoured and visceral. All this displays the quality of Ji-Woon's work; a startlingly precise command of texture and tone, visual muscle and sensitive collaboration with actors. Of course it helps that his leads are two of the biggest stars in Asian cinema; Choi Min-Sik and Lee Byung-Hun, both of whom are excellent here. They have something beyond genre cliches to chew on due to the first act, which is surprisingly emotional in it's portrayal of murder and the emotional trauma it causes, and which haunts the rest of the film, driving the action and the plot.
It should be a little excessive, and perhaps it is. It is certainly overlong. But it is tremendously well-made and brilliant in places; gripping, exciting and never remotely dull.