I was doing so well with Korean revenge thrillers. After "the Vengeance Trilogy," "Mother," Poetry," and other titles that showcased the new breed of violent, morally complicated crime dramas, I've stumbled upon a real stinker. "I Saw the Devil" is the latest from director Kim Ji-woon, best known for the excellent horror film "A Tale of Two Sisters." It stars Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik, two of the most well-known contemporary Korean leading men. In spite of this, "I Saw the Devil" is one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences I've ever had to endure. I made myself sit through the whole movie, but I sorely wanted to turn this one off before the halfway point.
It starts, as so many revenge films do, with a murder. A pretty young woman, Joo-yun (Oh San-ha), gets a flat tire in a remote area, and falls prey to a serial killer, one antisocial degenerate named Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik). Joo-yun's fiancé, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), is an undercover cop who immediately sets out to find the culprit and exact his revenge. Soo-hyun identifies Kyung-chul as the responsible party relatively quickly, but his revenge isn't as simple as killing the man. Instead, the two become caught up in a morbid game of escalating violent acts and reprisals. By the bloody final act, it's difficult to tell which is the more disturbed character: the vigilante or the serial killer.
"I Saw the Devil" is full of relentless, explicit violence. This by itself doesn't bother me. Many films are full of violence and gore, and I've seen some of the most extreme ones. The trouble here is the shallowness of the character and story, and the way that the film spends so much time wallowing in its own unpleasantness. Kyung-chul is one of the most repulsive villains I've ever seen, a rapist and murderer with a god complex. He bullies and denigrates his victims, mostly women, and the script seems to revel in his horribleness, coddling him shamelessly. None of his targets ever fight back, there are no witnesses to call the police, and the filmmakers lovingly glorify every abominable act he commits for two and a half excruciating hours.
Watching Kyung-chul indulge his twisted desires over and over, and watching Soo-hyun toying with him in a totally contrived and senseless matter, is akin to watching a little boy gleefully smashing insects and marveling over the grossness of the flying guts. I understand why some viewers responded well to this film, but there isn't enough substance under all the slick visuals and visceral intensity to justify its worst excesses. And boy, are there excesses. Some interesting themes are introduced, especially the unintended consequences of Soo-hyun's vengeance, but the film only handles them in the most superficial way, and becomes totally overwhelmed by the sheer meanness and nihilism of the characters.
One of the biggest problems here is that stony-faced Soo-hyun gets less screen time and dramatic emphasis than Kyung-chul. And when he is onscreen, Soo-hyun isn't exactly forthcoming about his unorthodox approach to punishing his fiancée's killer. We barely get any insight into his actions. Kyung-chul at least has the excuse of being a raving psychopath, but Soo-hyun is supposed to be our good guy, at least at first, but stops behaving like a rational human being almost immediately. He can't exactly have a descent into madness if he's already acting like a psychopath himself within the first half hour of the film.
"I Saw the Devil" reminds me a lot of "Taken," in that it takes a pretty standard revenge premise and turns it into an orgy of sleaze and violence that doesn't operate by any kind of real world logic. "I Saw the Devil" is the more egregious offender because it has much higher ambitions. It clearly wants to impart some kind of meaningful commentary on the standard Hollywood revenge fantasy narrative, but does so in such a blunt and clumsy way, it only ends up reinforcing the worst parts of the formula.
Was there anything I liked about the film? The violence, though stomach-churning, is beautifully shot and edited. Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik do about as good a job with these two cardboard characters as anyone could have. There are a couple of humorous moments that work, mostly involving Tae-joo (Choi Moo-sung), a cannibal friend of Kyung-chul's.
Other than that, it's two hours of guts and gore and groping that would make any decent human being squirm. And it's not worth it. If you removed an hour of the most gratuitous content, maybe you'd have something approaching the right proportions between the substance and shock value. As it is, "I Saw the Devil" is just a particularly nasty genre exercise, and I regret watching it.