Fantastic Fest: First secret screening is amazing Korean killer thriller 'I Saw The Devil'

Director of 'The Good The Bad The Weird' returns with harrowing battle of wills

<p>Min-sik Choi is one of the stars of 'I Saw The Devil,' the new film from Ji-Woon Kim, one of the most acclaimed Korean directors working today.</p>

Min-sik Choi is one of the stars of 'I Saw The Devil,' the new film from Ji-Woon Kim, one of the most acclaimed Korean directors working today.

Credit: Peppermint & Company, Ltd.

You know Fantastic Fest is really underway when one of the secret screenings has already happened.  There are always several peppered throughout the schedule, and the one on Friday night turned out to be the new Korean film "I Saw The Devil," which I had picked as one of my three favorite films from this year's Toronto International Film Festival.  I'm thrilled it played here, because it means I get to talk about the film with all my friends now, and I'm eager for that conversation to also include the general viewing public as soon as possible.

If you are a serial killer, can I offer a little advice?

Based on the evidence of the remarkable "I Saw The Devil," I would say it is a good rule of thumb that you should not brutally murder the fiance of a top secret agent for South Korea, because if you do, he is going to make you suffer.  And suffer.  And suffer.

And then Kim Ji-Woon will make a movie about it, and it will be awesome.

That's because everything Kim Ji-Woon makes seems to be awesome.  I didn't realize it at first, because his films have never been the "OMG, stop the presses!" moments of their respective years, but have instead just been consistently great.  "A Tale Of Two Sisters" is a meticulously built horror film, where what you aren't told is just as important as what you are told, a brain-bender more than a gross-out.  "A Bittersweet Life" seems at first glance to be a John Woo style story of men and honor and guns and the like, but he makes the genre feel brand new, like he invented it.  And then "The Good The Bad And The Weird" seemed to be a reinvention of the filmmaker as a Spielberg-like purveyor of set-pieces and spectacle, a spaghetti western that could easily play to fans of giant Hollywood films like the "Pirates Of The Caribbean" movies.  He seems to be capable of pretty much whatever he sets out to do.

Little wonder, then, that "I Saw The Devil" is one of the year's best films, although I would warn that it is harrowing, visceral stuff.  It plays like some fevered middle ground between "Se7en" and "The Game," but that's not to say it's just some Fincher knock-off.  Far from it.  I'm frustrated that I don't have the credits for the film to refer to, so I'm not sure if it's an original script or an adaptation, or who wrote it.  It's a fiendishly clever construct, though.  In the film's opening moments, a beautiful young woman is on the phone to her fiancee, who is indeed a South Korean secret agent played by Lee Byung-hun.  She's got a flat tire, and she's called for a repair truck to come help her.  Instead, someone else stops by, an unsettling figure played by Choi Min-sik.  When she says the wrong thing, it's almost like it's the excuse he's been waiting for, and Choi Min-sik goes mad, murdering her with sudden, awful fury.  Once Lee Byung-hun finds her body, though, and sees what was done to her, the game is on, and he takes a break from his job to go after whoever did it.

On one level, yes, we've gotten this general point before.  The more Lee Byung-hun tries to hurt Choi Min-sik in this film, the more he corrupts his own image, his own values.  Gaze too long into the abyss, and so on.  But it's the particular game that gets played, the way this story escalates, that turns "I Saw The Devil" into something really special.  Using his training as a secret agent, he finds the serial killer, and in a simple version of the story, he would kill him in some terrible way and that would be the revenge.  Nope.  The secret agent has something else in mind.  He hurts the serial killer, badly, and then while he's unconscious, feeds him a GPS locator with a microphone built in.  He releases the serial killer, and then begins to track him, knowing that the moment he starts to do anything, the secret agent will sweep in and hurt him again, worse each time it happens.

It's such a clean idea, such a great opportunity to really push these characters, and Kim Ji-Woon's amazing mind for building a set piece really shines here.  There's one long sequence that takes place in and around a house owned by some friends of Choi Min-sik in the film, where he's trying to hide out, unaware that Lee Byung-hun is nearby and ready to pounce, that is absolutely amazing, one of the best extended sequences in any film I've seen all year.  I'm so taken with the director's eye for composition, with his color palette, with his sense of timing in his cuts in and out of scenes, with his ear for dialogue, with the way he can create stylized worlds with totally natural characters, with the precision of his filmcraft whether he's directing two people sitting at a table talking or a chase scene with an entire army in a desert.  This is another wall-to-wall showcase for the exceptional command he has for almost every element in his movies, and it's a chance to take these two great movie stars and slam them into each other to see what happens.  Choi Min-sik is best known as the star of "Old Boy," and Lee Byung-Hun has already crossed over from exceptional Korean films like "A Bittersweet Life" to big Hollywood movies like "G.I. Joe," where he played Stormshadow.  For fans of Korean cinema, this is pretty much a dream come true moment, and for the film to deliver on its promise with such flair and sad, painful beauty is a confirmation that Kim Ji-Woon really is one of the names any serious film fan should be paying close attention to these days.

"I Saw The Devil" will be distributed in 2011 by Magnet Releasing in the U.S.

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