The world needs another serial-killer movie like it needs another hitman-out-for-one-last-job movie. Leave it to cult fave Korean director Kim Jee-woon, though, to come up with a twist that makes one of the hoariest screen clichés of the past decade worth watching again. Even more admirable is that Kim makes it work by combining it with one of the other hoariest screen clichés: a supersecret government operative. And more, of course, but more on that in a minute.
As I Saw the Devil (Magnet DVD and Blu-ray) opens, Kyung-chul (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik) happens across a pretty young woman stranded by the side of a snowy road, whereupon he brutally beats her and hauls her back to his lair to dismember her. Unfortunately for all concerned, Kyung-chul especially, the pretty young woman was the fiancée of earpiece-wearing agent Soo-hyeon (charismatic young Kim regular Lee Byung-hun). Soo-hyeon takes a leave of absence from work and sets about tracking down the man who slaughtered his wife-to-be. There’s something almost funny about his vicious, implacable approach to the first few scumbags on his list of suspects (the moped delivery boy, especially); he soon gets to Kyung-chul, and a similarly swift revenge would make this feature-length a short subject. But Soo-hyeon doesn’t want to kill Kyung-chul, at least not right away. He wants to make him suffer. And he does. And you, too, a bit.
While Kyung-chul is a reprehensible predator, Soo-hyeon’s drawn-out punishment of his nemesis is so gorno brutal, so inhumanly single-minded, that it makes Kyung-chul, well, perhaps not sympathetic, but you soon understand that I Saw the Devil’s title can be taken a number of ways. And yet, even among some of the more shudder-inducing flashes of ultraviolence seen onscreen recently, I Saw the Devil pulls you in. Best known in the United States for flashy style exercises such as A Bittersweet Life and the gonzo Eastern Western The Good, the Bad and the Weird, Kim often exercises exquisite restraint here, drawing out scene after scene of agonizing suspense and even telling emotional moments. The magnetic Choi creates a most fascinating monster/victim, and Kim otherwise ups the revulsion/attraction ante in astounding but subtle ways: Shots of a tear pooled in the corner of the eye of a cowering victim or steam rising from brutalized body parts exposed to the cold air will stick with you longer than might be comfortable. Lee’s Soo-hyeon is perhaps too subtle a character in some respects, but I Saw the Devil outstrips the bloody genre junk it draws from to channel a ferocious vision that earns its extremity.
Of course, plenty of filmmakers try to elevate genre junk only to tumble right back to the middle of the heap. Take Black Death (Magnolia DVD and Blu-ray). With HBO’s epic fantasy mini-series Game of Thrones much buzzed about in the nerdosphere these days, the presence of Sean Bean in leather and metal plate would appear to represent a serendipitous selling point. But Bean in lank medieval mode yet again is, in truth, a sign of director Christopher Smith’s unimaginative take on this bizarre exquisite corpse of a story.
Bean plays Ulric, a sort of knightly inquisitor/witchfinder, who, with his band of mix-and-match heavily armed sidekicks, is out to investigate a village that is rumored to have escaped the bubonic plague ravaging the land, perhaps through evil means. Since this is the Middle Ages and even the smart, capable people are muddy and ill-informed, Ulric recruits novice monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) to guide him, his crew, and their ridiculous torture wagon to said village. Osmund has his own motive for leaving the cloister behind in fetching village lass Averill (Kimberly Nixon). It appears you are supposed to care about Osmund’s struggle with his faith and his powerful less-than-holy feelings for Averill, but you do not much, because Osmund is a bit of a drip.
Osmund and Ulric and his not-so-merry men and their ridiculous torture wagon finally make it to the village, where all seems well—no one is muddy—and, of course, it is not. From there, the film descends into a farrago of plot strands and set-ups scavenged from The Wicker Man and The Deer Hunter and maybe—sure, why not?—Pet Semetary. It appears you are supposed to find Osmund and Ulric’s struggle to keep the faith in the face of pagan witchery compelling, but you do not much, because you don’t much care about Osmund and Ulric, and you especially don’t care about what happens after the climax, because it is even more ridiculous than the torture wagon. If it boasted more action and less walking and arguing, Black Death might work as undemanding B-movie fun, a la Centurion; alternately, it could go for grim mindblow, as in Valhalla Rising. But no. As it is, Dutch actress Carice van Houten constitutes the lone bright spot as a village matriarch who seems to consider these muddy, ill-informed men of faith kind of silly, which, of course, they are.