I Saw the Devil and His Name Was Kim Jong-un – Vengeance and South Korean Cinema

Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil tells of a South Korean intelligence agent who responds to the death of his wife by tracking down the man who murdered her. However, instead of simply killing the man, the agent decides to install surveillance equipment that will allow him to continue punishing the murderer over an extended period of time. Initially, the killer is taken aback by the agent’s hatred but he soon comes to enjoy the confrontations and so lures the agent into an increasingly brutal contest of wills. Hideously violent, unflinchingly brutal and yet beguiling to watch, Kim’s film offers a traditionally Nietzschean warning to those who would consider embarking on a quest for revenge:

Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

While Kim’s film is beautifully made and eminently entertaining, I cannot help but wonder why it is that he felt inspired to make a film with this particular message. Back in 2005, Kim directed the wonderful A Bittersweet Life in which the protagonist exacts a bloody revenge on his employers for the way in which they deprived him of a personal life and yet responded with furious anger the second he stepped out of line in an effort to grab some happiness for himself. Given that A Bittersweet Life convincingly communicates the idea that revenge is a necessary but ultimately self-defeating course of action, it is strange to see Kim making yet another film with this precise message. Especially when the message in question is so blindingly obvious that it scarcely merits a passing thought at all let alone enough thought to fill two entire films. Even more puzzling is the fact that Kim is not alone in his desire to brood over the morality of vengeance. In fact, South Korean cinema has produced so many revenge films in recent years that one can comfortably talk about them constituting a sub-genre in their own right.

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