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Movie Review

I Saw the Devil

Revenge film toys with killer, and with vileness

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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Not long ago, two people sat down to watch Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil.’’ Six minutes later, my seatmate was gone. It’s not that the movie lasts for six minutes — inexplicably, 135 or so remain. It’s that he wasn’t prepared to watch a madman beat a woman senseless then talk to her unclothed, barely alive body, which he’s dragged from her car to his lair and wrapped in plastic. This might be another way of saying that Kim, a South Korean whose previous cult-junk includes “A Tale of Two Sisters ’’ and “The Good, the Bad and the Weird,’’ doesn’t waste time. But that’s not true. Wasting time is very much his point.

When the movie’s psycho, Kyung-chul (the amply effective Choi Min-sik), tells one of his female victims that he’ll be quick in hurting her, it feels very much like a joke. Kim basically plays the old cat-and-mouse game with elevated stakes. That first woman we see Kyung-chul bludgeon, the one who cost me my date, was the daughter of a Seoul police chief and the wife of Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), the sort of sleek, absurdly undamageable secret agent whose wife you probably shouldn’t be murdering.

Soo-hyun spends the movie almost killing Kyung-chul. Rather than finish him off, he releases him back into the wild, only to catch him again with another victim, beat him silly, then release him once more. (God bless the GPS.) By the end — OK, by the middle — neither man is recognizably human.

Kim directed from a script by Park Hoon-jung. As revenge fantasy, “I Saw the Devil’’ is clever. As comedy, it’s sick. As moviegoing, it’s tedious, even once a second nutjob arrives to convene a possible scene of semi-civilized cannibalism. The operative word in “I Saw the Devil’’ is “Saw,’’ as in the American horror franchise that was so rigged with bogus righteousness that it was borderline televangelical.

The trick with moralist horror is to find a way to represent the vile without celebrating vileness. Or maybe it’s just my trick, since these movies rarely exhibit that sort of restraint. But I suppose that’s the climate of authenticity we’ve come to demand. If you’re going to give us a movie about sadists, we need to see a flaying or two to know you’re for real.

Kim’s final sequence ends with a schlock thunderclap that could be based on one of the torture contraptions in a “Saw’’ movie or any of Park Chan-wook’s three “Vengeance’’ films. It must be said, however, that no “Saw’’ movie ever had a director half as good as Kim or lighting scarcely as bright. But Kim isn’t as rigorous or fanciful a doomsayer as Park. Kim is looking for provocation.

He’s annoying that way, trying a little bit of everything as a dare, hoping he finds something to appall and entertain you in the same movie, if not the same shot. I don’t trust him mostly because he doesn’t appear to trust himself.

But that ending is a whopper all the same: a heartless blast of tragedy, exploitation, amusement, and general flagrance. Kim is rumored to be scouting locations for his American debut, produced by the studio that brought us seven installments of “Saw.’’ Run.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

I SAW THE DEVIL

Directed by: Kim Jee-woon

Written by: Park Hoon-jung

Starring: Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 142 minutes

In Korean,

with English subtitles

Unrated (scenes of rape, torture, and, somehow, much worse)

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