Although the New Korean Cinema dream team of director Kim Ji-woon and leading man Lee Byung-hun has already explored the theme of revenge with their 2005 collaboration A Bittersweet Life, they undoubtedly up the ante with the brutally realised retribution of I Saw the Devil. While the earlier film encouraged the audience to become swept up in the sheer excitement of a mob enforcer’s efforts to take out the employer who has ordered his execution, I Saw the Devil is a murkier affair in terms of moral engagement, with events taking place in a recognisable social reality rather than the occasionally exaggerated criminal underworld of A Bittersweet Life. Kim is a frequent genre-hopper whose past credits comprise the black comedy The Quiet Family (1998), the unsettling horror A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and the action-packed western The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), but his latest film takes tentative steps into Park Chan-wook territory with I Saw the Devil evoking a similarly unpredictable entanglement of physical and thematic excess as Park’s much-admired Vengeance trilogy (2002, 2003, 2005). However, Kim ultimately adheres to formula in order to achieve a cathartic conclusion with this palpable tension between the need to deliver a star-driven commercial thriller and a desire to engage in a deeper mode of inquiry making I Saw the Devil a strangely unsatisfying experience, despite the director’s typically stylish treatment of the material.
The strengths and weaknesses of I Saw the Devil are made equally apparent by its clearly defined three-act structure: in the first third, a young woman is murdered in the middle of nowhere by sadistic serial killer Hyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), who proceeds to dismember her body with the individual parts disposed of in the nearby river. The fiancé of the victim is Joon-yeon (Lee), a special agent who vows to track down the man responsible for his grief; Joon-yeon works his way through several suspects before realising that Hyung-chul is the guilty party, but after locating the murderer, Joon-yeon does not kill him or place him under arrest; instead, Joon-yeon knocks Hyung-Chul unconscious and force-feeds him a GPS tracking device, then allows him to recuperate and go about his business. The extended mid-section finds Hyung-chul trying to resume his murderous rampage, leading to uncomfortable encounters with potential victims in a doctor’s surgery and a remote house, only for Joon-yeon to intervene at the last possible moment; Joon-yeon keeps beating Hyung-chul within an inch of his life, then letting the killer recover in order to repeat the process, thereby inflicting a level of pain which will eventually equal his own sorrow. In the final third, Hyung-chul realises that he has a tracking device in his stomach and gets rid of it with the aid of some fast-acting laxatives, leading to a fairly conventional climax as the renegade special agent races to Seoul to save the lives of his extended family.
In its first and third acts, I Saw the Devil largely conforms to the thriller template, with Kim’s trademark attention to detail further establishing his credentials as a seriously skilled genre practitioner. The murder of Joon-yeon’s fiancé is straight out of the serial killer movie handbook, with its quiet location and a spot of unwelcome ‘assistance’, but Hyung-chul’s attack is shocking in its suddenness, while Kim’s assembly of clichéd elements (a trail of blood in the snow, blood spilling out of a sewer pipe, the discovery of the body) is both arresting and menacing. Joon-yeon’s emotional unravelling upon realising the identity of the victim is conveyed in an effectively understated manner by Lee, providing a glimpse of a personality that is otherwise only seen when his character takes a ‘bathroom break’ in order to sing to his ill-fated fiancé over the phone. The final third, in which Joon-yeon must deal with the both the personal and professional fall-outs that have resulted from his actions is less well handled, with the agent’s strained relationship with his superior resulting in some unremarkably scripted shouting matches. Credibility is then stretched to breaking point as Joon-yeon pulls off a super-slick vehicular manoeuvre so that he can abduct Hyung-chul again for the climactic confrontation. Still, the somewhat forced final showdown does enable Kim to tie-up both narrative and thematic threads that would be left hanging without this large injection of commercial convention.
The moral ‘meat’ of I Saw the Devil is found in the fascinating mid-section with Joon-yeon’s treatment of the partially captive Hyung-chul playing out as a combination of personal revenge and dangerous social experiment; no matter how many beatings the special agent dishes out to the sociopath, the latter refuses to reform and his resolve to kill strengthens due to the former’s interventions denying him the ‘satisfaction’ that he regularly receives from killing. The lengths that Joon-yeon goes to in his quest for vengeance become increasingly questionable from a moral standpoint as he allows innocent individuals to come close to death before stepping in, saving their lives but not sparing them from the terrifying experience, or any post-traumatic disorder that may result from it. Of course, the notion of the hero becoming as monstrous as the villain that he is pursuing is not exclusive to I Saw the Devil, but Kim certainly succeeds at demonstrating the potential for evil within even a supposedly morally upstanding state servant such as Joon-yoo; Hyung-chul‘s victims see the ‘devil’ before their untimely demise, but Hyung-chul in turn sees the ‘devil’ when receiving another beating from Joon-yoo, while the special agent eventually sees the ‘devil’ in himself when dealing with the collateral damage of his self-assigned revenge mission. However, once making this point about human nature, Kim seems unsure of how to develop it in narrative terms and lets Hyung-chul off the leash for the finale.
Some of this uncertainty is unfortunately evident in Lee’s performance; I Saw the Devil follows in the footsteps of such star-orientated South Korean thrillers as Kwak Kyung-taek’s Typhoon (2005) and Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008) in offering a high stakes cat-and-mouse scenario, with an equal amount of screen time being allocated to each leading actor, but Lee struggles to show his character’s slippery moral slope. Back on South Korean soil following ill-fated bids for transnational stardom with Tran Anh Hung’s I Come with the Rain (2009) and Stephen Sommers’ G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), Lee initially over-comes an underwritten role to establish Joon-yoo as a career-minded agent, but struggles in the later stages when his character’s actions appear to be less of an extreme reaction to loss than an extension of his professional persona; Joon-yoo’s early aggressive interrogation of the two other suspects (shattering the testicles of one, knocking the other off his motorbike) also makes it difficult to determine at which point this special agent really goes off the rails. The tour de force, then, is delivered by Choi, channelling his Park Chan-wook collaborations as the rage of Oldboy (2003) merges with the hide-in-plain-sight monstrosity of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). Hyung-chul is a scary self-contradiction; reckless yet resourceful, slow on the uptake, but media-savvy enough to use his notoriety to his advantage by reminding a young woman who is reluctant to accept his offer of a lift that there is a serial killer on the loose. Even Choi’s efforts are ultimately undermined by the fact that Kim is better at executing action than exploring obsession, but I Saw the Devil remains a grimly compelling thriller regardless of its shortcomings.