Are the South Koreans the new Jacobeans? It’s not the first time such parallels have been made, particularly since Park Chan-Wook’s revenge tragedy trilogy (Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, and Oldboy), as well as other stylish exercises in endurance such as Kim ki-duk’s Bad Guy and Jee-woon Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters.
Visually lush and dementedly violent, they make up a distinctive genre that suggests a cinematic Renaissance has been going on in that part of the world, a modern equivalent to the theatrical Renaissance of John Webster, Thomas Middleton and (when his sanguinary Titus Andronicus mood took him) Shakespeare himself. With Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil, which landed onto the DVD shelves with a bloody splat and a well-deserved 18 rating this week, the parallels are all the more palpable.
I Saw the Devil follows the revenge tragedy dictum that those who go after revenge had better be ready to dig two graves. It centres on a special agent (Byung-hun Lee) whose pregnant girlfriend falls victim to a serial killer, played, with breath-taking malignancy, by Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik.
I’d say that Choi lights up the screen every time he looms into view, but it would be more accurate to say he casts a kind of suffocating and sulphurous pall that puts you in mind of the infernal fires John Milton describes as “darkness visible”. Obviously, he’s the Devil of the title. Equally obviously, there’s going to be much more to it than that. Anyone familiar with the genre will know that the revenger will get sucked into a vortex of his own vengeful obsessions and, before you know it, will soon be showing the bad guy a thing or two about creative sadism.
On paper, it looks like just another schlocker let loose from the torture-porn serial-killer stable. In truth, it’s light years away form the giggly infantilism of the Hostels, or the Wile E. Coyote-style contrivances of the Saw series. Just as Jacobean playwrights took hackneyed murder plots and put a supremely literate and metaphysically complex spin on them, Kim lays on the cinematic panache and ratchets up the intensity to something approaching high art.
Make no mistake; I Saw the Devil is as gruelling and morally squalid an experience as it’s possible to have this side of legal. When I saw it in the cinema a couple of months back, some audience members were virtually emitting Wilhelm screams and manically wrestling their arm rests with unfeigned distress at the horrors unfolding before them. You should also be warned that there’s a highly questionable tendency for the camera to leer at the female victims in a way that goes beyond any artistic justification that we’re being cleverly manoevred into identifying with the killer.
For those who can take it, though, I Saw the Devil is a genuinely exhilarating piece of cinema that somehow succeeds in being an emotionally-draining descent into the depths of pure noxious evil, and a sometimes laugh-aloud absurdist black comedy (though I’ll admit that the cannibal-with-a-knife-stuck-in-his-hand gag won’t tickle everybody).
Not quite up there with the Hamlet of South Korean revenge tragedies – that would be Oldboy – I Saw the Devil is nevertheless a worthy heir to the White Devil John Webster saw some 400 years ago.
I Saw the Devil is now available on DVD.