The evil in Deliver Us from Evil is specifically Lee Jung-jae’s sadistic villain but generally the entire world of the film, which features drug kingpins, child kidnapping, government assassins turned hitmen, human traffickers, real estate swindlers, organ thieves, and crooked cops. At one point the film gets super-judgy about Park Jeong-min’s cabaret singer complaining about being surrounded by all the, well, Evil. Of course, since she’s a trans woman (actor Park, however, is not; he’s a cis male actor, which is just as shitty a move in a South Korean film as an American), it’s somehow supposed to be her fault. Meanwhile, all the dudes roaming around butchering people, kidnapping kids, and so on… well, it’s just the way it is for them. There’s something more wrong about Park, who’s run off to Thailand because she’s ashamed of being trans and having abandoned a young son back home in Korea.
I’m assuming the source dialogue has all the misgendering (the subtitles sure do), as the film uses Park as a showpiece for various people to discriminate against. It’s a messed up part and Park does all right, but it’s the most exploitative thing in writer and director Hong’s film, which is about kidnapping children and harvesting their organs based for xenophobes. In fact, Hong terrorizes Park’s character onscreen to get out of having to terrorize the trafficked children onscreen. The narrative needlessly tracks Park through a terrified night in jail to the morning where three cops threaten her for information, leveraging her marginalized status as an injury vector. And Hong drags it out to the point I was expecting “hero” Hwang Jung-min to somehow rescue Park from the crooked cops, but, no, it’s just more opportunities to be shitty to Park and terrorize her for sympathy. Except not exactly because Hwang’s super shitty to her too. It’s a garbage move, made even more so when Hong reveals Park to be the only truly sympathetic character in the whole movie (well, adult; well, adult who isn’t a fridged woman).
Of course, there’s an added “(South Korean) Oscar bait” aspect to Park’s performance, which makes it all the more shallow and all the more craven. It’s incredibly insincere, callous, and often mean-spirited.
Hong often tries to veer Evil away from the true meanness he’s setting on film through the outlandish characters. Calling the characters in Evil caricatures is a little too complimentary; they’re cartoonish. Often viciously cartoonish, but cartoonish. Lee’s a terrifying psychopathic supervillain who literally chops his way through crowds of people to get at his target—Hwang, who unknowingly killed Lee’s brother. Hwang spends the first act of the film, outside the hitman sequences, moping around Japan. He’s an ex-pat from South Korea who used to be a happy, well-adjusted government assassin; a bunch of non-murderous people came to power and decided they should stop killing people and disbanded Hwang’s outfit so he had to run to Japan. Where he keeps doing one last job until he can go live on a beach in Panama. Then he’ll be happy.
Except after Hwang does his last hit… someone kidnaps his previously unknown daughter Park So-yi over in Thailand, where she’s been happily living with naive mom Choi Hee-seo. Notice how much the plot hinges on previously unknown characters (Park, Lee) coming to the fore as inciting actions–Hong doesn’t really have a story, he’s got a hero (Hwang) and a villain (Lee) and various set pieces where they interact.
Both Hwang and Lee are capable of infinite violence—at one point someone injuries seem to supernaturally heal because he’s needed for the next action sequence, which involves chasing a car on foot while suffering multiple stab wounds; the leads chop through a legion of fake shemps, having both run afoul of the local crime lords in Thailand on their arrival, invincible until they have their inevitable showdown. Only Hwang’s not in the movie for an inevitable showdown with Lee, he’s in the movie to rescue daughter Park. Hong loses sight of the main plot, too wrapped up in the pretty good grisly action sequences. There are no heroics in Evil, just bloody action scenes—lots and lots of knives; it’s a third act problem because the film sets Hwang up as a tactical genius while Lee’s the bull stabbing everything in the china shop.
Hong does a great job directing Evil, Hong Kyung-pyo’s photography is excellent, ditto Kim Hyung-ju’s editing, and Hwang’s performance is outstanding the lead. Lee’s good but he’s just doing an unstoppable, unpredictable bad guy thing. It’s like an audition reel for another Joker movie or something. The different tones in the adversaries is usually a plus; it craps out at the end, when Hong turns out to have no organic way to bring them together and has to gin one up; Hong gets through thanks to his directing and his crew.
It’d be nice if Deliver Us from Evil’s biggest problem were just the third act, or just the title, instead of the transphobia and xenophobia. I didn’t even get to the xenophobia but basically the film portrays Thailand as a shithole country full stop. For a transphobic, xenophobic, exploitative revenge and avenge thriller, Evil’s about as good you can get. It’d be nice if it didn’t come with so many gross caveats.