I SAW THE DEVIL Movie Review
Revenge is a dish best served wet.
This seems to be the message Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-woon wants us to glean from the shock-violence of I SAW THE DEVIL.
The wet part is, of course, liters of blood, body parts, sex crimes and intentional cripplings. Knives and improvised weapons complete the recipe for the gory soufflé whipped up by stars Choi Min-sik (OLDBOY) and Lee Byung-hyun (THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD) in this cat-and-mouse revenge thriller. Guns kill too fast, and we’re meant to enjoy (?) the senseless brutality of this film, to linger over each sliced limb, crushed skull and line of dialogue delivered by dead-eyed psychopaths.
If that’s your thing.
The pretty young fiancée of Soo Hyun (Lee Byung-hyun) is murdered and chopped up by serial killer Kyung-chui (Choi Min-sik), whom the police have been after for some time. Rather than merely catch and incarcerate (or kill) the murderer, Soo Hyun decides to exact his revenge by putting the (clearly insane) killer through a torture as close as he can devise to the pain his fiancée went though at the hands of the killer—but much more prolonged. Over the course of days (weeks?), Soo Hyun tracks the killer as he makes his way through South Korean towns and rural areas which are seemingly peopled only by other serial killers and their victims (honestly—we meet no fewer than eight different serial killers active in South Korea at the same time). We get a glimpse of exactly how this might happen, as Kyung-chui is allowed to escape again and again, each time a little more beat up than before, as much due to Soo Hyun’s ineptitude as his desire to punish the killer in his own way.
Although it is never explained or justified in the film (at least not in the English subtitles), Soo Hyun is eventually revealed to be a James Bond-like super agent who cannot be harmed by the killer due to his amazing reflexes and martial arts training. I do not think this is meant to be a surprise, so it’s not really a spoiler. It’s just an oversight in the film, or a character point that the filmmaker didn’t really care much about setting up.
This is not a sophisticated story; the unending dumbness of it and its nominal protagonist fail to rise above the level of a 1980s slasher flick. There’s no quirky structure or twist waiting to rescue us; on the contrary, the one seemingly inevitable turn we feel the story must take, from the moment the chase begins, is precisely what happens – and it takes too long to get there.
The major problem I have with this film is that as you sit in the theater, pushing your way through nearly two and a half hours that feels like three and a half, it dawns on you that there can be no satisfying conclusion to this story. The killer is so inhuman and is allowed to go on torturing for so long that he can reach no end, no justice or retribution complete enough, that will redeem what we’ve had to watch him do; and the cop is so callous and inept in his quest for revenge that we can only wish for some other agent to take over the chase in his stead, even if it means he must himself become a victim of his target.
As mainstream fare, I Saw The Devil is crippled by its weird Asian film aesthetic and its complete amorality. It is not SAW, if only due to the presence of dashes of realism, a story, and some fine filmmaking. The critical elements of this movie will be enjoyed by genre fans because of what is shown on the screen, rather than in spite of it; subtlety is lost on Kim Ji-woon, and every opportunity to evoke, rather than spray, is missed deliberately. When given the choice of how to let us know that a person has been dismembered, he will always choose to show us the laundry cart full of body parts being dragged past the camera (the necessary), AND the machete cleaving through cracking bone and quivering muscle to free another arm or foot to be tossed on the pile (the gratuitous).
Movies like this are too easily forgiven their lack of a moral center by fanboys who praise good filmmaking, an interestingly menacing performance, or a clever new turn on torture dreamed up by the writer. This film should probably carry a warning so that moviegoers know exactly what they are getting into; one would hope that the marketing campaign does not bill it as merely “hard-hitting” or “violent.” This is a film that will be enjoyed only by viewers who go to the theater seeking out its very darkest features.