I sometimes wonder what Secret Cinema would be like in South Korea. Do they put you in a box for 15 years then feed you a live octopus and chase you round with a hammer? Because that still sounds better than Romeo + Juliet.
There’s extreme cinema and then there’s South Korea, where people apparently go to near comical lengths for revenge. 2010’s I Saw the Devil is such a film, whose cat-and-mouse violence makes Ichi the Killer look like Itchy & Scratchy. It shares with Oldboy its star (Choi Min-sik) and use of hammers and classical music (in this case Bizet’s Habanera), alongside the idea of characters with nothing to lose setting themselves an endless project to give their life meaning, like Leonard Shelby in Memento or Mr Lomax in Psychoville.
As twisted but less twisty than Oldboy, the movie follows a special agent (Lee Byung-hun) tracking down his wife’s killer (Min-sik) and soon descends into 2+ hours of people bludgeoning each other with blunt objects. Its Nietzschean moral about when you gaze long into the abyss you miss all your Amazon deliveries (I haven’t read it) is hammered home in every sense, with characters superfluously repeating its thesis.
But contrary to the slow-mo ponderousness of a picture like Only God Forgives, Kim Jee-woon’s thriller sustains the action and maintains the intensity for the duration. Min-sik gives another alarmingly committed performance as one of the genre’s nastiest villains (a school bus driver no less), while Jee-woon’s visceral, virtuoso direction and Mowg’s blaring, emotional score lend deeply noirish atmosphere to proceedings.
If you can stomach the torture, rape and cannibalism, I Saw the Devil is simply a really good revenge thriller, and the most gruelling viewing experience I’ve had since watching the Prince Andrew interview.