Tonight Korean special agent Kim Seo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) sees his life change for the worse. His wife called him to say that she had suffered a flat tyre in this freezing weather, and had called the mechanic out to help her, so as she sat in the car she chatted with her husband to keep her company. But then there was a tap at the window - not the mechanic, but a driver passing by, who told her he could help; she politely turned down his offer, but he was persistent. Not because he wanted to assist - because he wanted to get inside the car to murder her.
That would be the Devil of the title, then, no supernatural entity but a very human psychopath, and violent with it in Kim Ji-woon's continuing run of hit South Korean movies which won him as much acclaim in his home country as they did abroad. If anything, this was his strongest film yet, and not only due to how intense an experience it was: beginning like some draining torture porn epic as if influenced for the worst by the type of horror movie emerging from across the Pacific for the past decade, it transformed itself into something far deeper, far more thought-provoking, remaining one of the most pulse-pounding excitements of the day while never losing sight of morality as many of its genre's lesser examples did.
It was even more violent in its original cut, but Korean censors demanded edits, making fans wonder how much more bloody it could have been considering what it was like in the release version. But this was no mere parade of the best effects Kim's makeup team could conjure up, as there was a point to all this, and it was nested in a high concept for a thriller which could easily have been banal. Such was the skill of the director and his two leading men that the cat and mouse depicted here quickly became engrossing as we worried as much about the avenger as we did for the crimes the killer was planning, and the ruminations over how corrosive actual acts of vengeance would become lifted this above many a rogue agent thriller.
Much of that was down to the casting of Oldboy's Choi Min-sik as the bad guy, here returning to the screen after a two year break, a protest about how Korean movies were treated in his native land. He had evidently been spending that period revving up his thespian engines, for not only was he operating at a level few stars would brave, but he managed to be about as repellent a character as it was possible to be while still making us fascinated about his predicament and what he can do to get out of it. That predicament being that Seo-hyun has decided to make himself the killer's very own angel of death, putting him through a literally tortuous ordeal to make him realise the true misery and degradation he had inflicted upon the innocent.
To that end, the agent places a tracking device inside the killer, and follows him around, gradually beating him down every time he tries to strike again and as he lies semi-conscious whispering in his ear that this is by no means over. So far, so much of the type of revenge flick you'd probably had your fill of, but the director, working from an excellent script by Park Hoon-jung, wanted to take this further and muse over how much corruption it inflicted the hero's soul, the answer being that if he had found the murderer and turned him into the police he would have saved himself, not to mention all those who suffer as a consequence, a lot of heartache. It was accurate to say that this was so over the top that the impression of South Korea one took from it was not exactly warm if these are the kinds of depravity you could expect there, but the human aspect of the gruesome acts we witnessed were never in question. Nobody would leave this thinking it's best to confront a psycho on their own vile terms, and the ending was weirdly moving as this message hit home. Music by Mowg.