When it comes to revenge, the punishment should not only fit the crime but it should re-enact it. William Wallace’s execution in Braveheart (1995) is a re-enactment of the crimes of which he has been found guilty. He inspires internal rebellion, so his own intestines are ripped out; he wishes to separate the kingdom, then his limbs are racked; he disobeys the head of state, his own head must come off. This is a principle of the law as vengeance, on which public executions used to be based, and which in turn inspired a whole spate of Jacobean revenge dramas, most famously Hamlet. In Kim Jee-Woon‘s new film, I Saw the Devil, vengeance is all, in a full-throated, blood-soaked revenge opera.
The initial murder and the subsequent investigation occupy a slim part of the film and are slickly despatched. The pregnant fiancée of National Security agent Soo-hyun is captured, tortured and murdered by Kyung-chul (played by the Oldboy himself, Choi Min-sik). Soo-hyun tracks him down with relative ease and, unhampered by the niceties of due process, sets about his revenge. It is here the film takes a genuinely perverse turn. Reckoning killing’s too good for this psycho, Soo-hyun sets about a game not so much of cat and mouse as rabid cat and rabid cat, torturing Kyung-chul only to release him so he can be hunted again. Soo-hyun goes about his task with a steely-eyed determination and grimly funny verve, which wins reluctant admiration from the serial killers he comes across even as it risks losing audience sympathy. But who cares about sympathy? This is a world of banal and ubiquitous evil, populated by school children, defenceless women (with one exception), ineptly woeful cops and predatory sadists of whom Kyung-chul seems like a charismatic leader. An old pal speaks of him as if he were a guru from the 60s: ‘We were going to turn the world upside down.’ The ordinariness of Kyung-chul is disconcerting. As in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), this is a banal evil. Kyung-chul has a disapproving father, an abandoned son and a day job (school bus driver, I know, I know). His victims are despatched with whatever comes to hand, a piece of pipe, a screwdriver, and souvenirs are kept in filing cabinets, rather than a Seven-like shrine.
Soo-hyun’s revenge is grimly witty, but the film, despite the extremity of the violence, never gets bogged down in torture porn. Soo-hyun’s main dilemma is not so much concerned with the morality of vengeance, but rather a technical question: how can the revenger truly replicate the crime to be avenged? How can the pain and fear of the innocent victim be inflicted on the guilty? Surely, if you care enough to want it, you’ve already lost. Soo-hyun’s solution is both blackly hilarious and tragically absurd.