Korea has eclipsed Hong Kong as Asia's epicenter of adventurous filmmaking in recent years. In such international hits as "Thirst," The Host," "Mother," "The Housemaid" and "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," audacious Korean filmmakers have transformed creature features, mysteries, police procedurals and vampire movies into sensational new takes on traditional themes. In the ridiculously entertaining action adventure "The Good, the Bad, the Weird," Kim Jee-woon moved the spaghetti western to the Mongolian desert and gave it a 100-cc shot of adrenaline to the heart.

Now Kim is back with "I Saw the Devil," a mind-boggling tale of serial murder and horrific retribution that will be this year's most controversial serious film. The setup is as simple as a dynamite fuse: A wily, remorseless slasher (acting master Choi Min-Sik) kills the wife of a secret-service agent (matinee idol Lee Byun-hun, the villain of "TGTBTW"). There's no time squandered on sleuthing; within an hour, the agent has his man cornered as he attacks another victim. The agent attacks, savagely beats the killer unconscious ... and stuffs money in his pocket so he can evade the approaching police. What in most films would be the climax is just the capper to Act One.

The agent doesn't want to enforce society's justice, but his own brand, which will prolong the killer's suffering as long as possible. But the agent overestimates himself and underestimates his prey. The killer is a tough-as-leather survivor who recovers from his multiple beatings and wages a campaign of terror on the remaining members of the agent's family. Viewers without a strong tolerance for graphic violence, be warned.

The film boasts a vivid supporting cast and bravura action sequences, but it's the cold, feral intensity of the duel that overpowers every other quality. Pushing the logic of aggression and retaliation to the far edge of S&M splatter, writer/director Kim undermines the entire canon of revenge movies. The cycle of strike and counterattack fuels some of the most emotionally and viscerally intense combat in memory as the crime-fighter becomes as obsessed as the psycho killer. For South Koreans, trapped in a half-century standoff against the belligerent regime to the north, this dark crime thriller must have powerful political ramifications, too. For the rest of us, it's a brilliantly realized celluloid nightmare.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186