Revenge is, of course, a story as old as the Athenian tragedians. A dish served best cold it might be, but it makes server and eater sick alike. No good deed of vengeance goes unpunished in the Greek tragedies and Ji-woon is as cruel and penetrating as they were in showing how the desire to get revenge for a horrible misdeed can make the victim as horrible as the perpetrator. Ji-woon has called the film an Oriental Western and it reminds me of a Western like the Searchers and just how Greek the Westerns were. So, a Hellenic-Oriental Western!
When her car breaks down, a young woman is abducted, tortured and beheaded by Kyung-chul (Choi min-sik) a middle aged serial killer in a truly horrifying opening sequence. Her fiance Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hyun), who talked with her on the phone right before the killing, is haunted by the killing and takes time off from his position as a federal agent to track down the killer and pay him back for the killing. Planting a GPS tracker on him, Soo-hyun plays a game of hunter and prey, letting him go repeatedly to track him down again and torture him some more.
But, the serial killer has plans of his own and doesn't like being screwed with. Choi min-sik (from Oldboy) plays the killer as a sort of irritated, tired, asshole who thinks he has the right to do as he pleases to others. A scene in which he torments a poor secretary builds a great deal of tension, beginning with the mere sense that he just doesn't care about social niceties.
Gradually, Soo-hyun follows suit, moving farther and farther outside of the law in his attempt to transfer some of his crushing pain to Kyung-chul. He is warned that "revenge is just for movies", but can't seem to change the direction he's headed. When Kyung-chul finally tries to turn himself into the police, Soo-hyun won't let him! An attempted telephone intervention scene in the third act gives the story a surprising gravity. But the action is as frenetic as anything in The Good, the Bad, the Weird- a stabbing scene in a moving car is absolutely eye-popping. It is clear why Kim Ji-woon has become a cult favorite director.
Aside from being a tad long, I can hardly recommend this movie enough. It's shocking, brutal, strangely funny, action-packed, and surprisingly moving. More importantly, it has something that Tarantino's revenge epics lack altogether: it has a perspective.