The plot is simple and relatively unoriginal: A brutal serial killer, played by Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi, is killing and dismembering young women. But his latest victim was a poor choice: She’s engaged to a Joo-yeong (Byung-hun Lee), a secret agent who reacts poorly when her body turns up. He takes two weeks off work to hunt down the man who killed his beloved.
Whether it’s because he’s awesome or the police are utterly incompetent is unclear, but he quickly uncovers the identity of the killer and tracks him down. But instead of the quick and brutal vengeance one might expect, Joo-yeong merely lays a beating on the killer before setting him free, only to track him down again.
The themes of I Saw the Devil are simple and obvious: The Hunter becomes the Hunted! Must one become a monster in order to hunt monsters? It’s the sort of thing that shows up in just about any comic where Batman has to fight the Joker. There’s not much subtlety or character to be found here: Joo-yeong and his prey are both single-minded in their respective tasks of vengeance and murder. The rest of the characters are even flimsier, serving only basic plot functions. This is not a movie that is meant to make you think, or even to care about the characters beyond “Will he/she die?”
But I Saw the Devil has several strong points in its favour that can make you forget about the weak characters and plot holes.
Min-sik Choi is a scary motherfucker. He was ferocious and intense in Oldboy, but here he makes Hannibal Lecter look like a middle-aged British actor. He oozes menace and casual violence, and creeps you out in almost every scene. It’s a cliche role without a lot of depth, but Choi plays it full-throttle and turns in one of the scariest serial killer in years.
While director Ji-woon Kim may be light on the talking/thinking/feeling aspects of filmmaking, he is a master of action and suspense. When Ji-woon gets away from silly things like characters and dialogue, I Saw the Devil is a fierce and intense film. Even the most predictable scenes become riveting under his direction: Yes, we know the woman in the broken-down car on the side of the road at night is in trouble, but it’s still terrifying as a van pulls off the road next to her. Ji-woon is a master of the quiet/loud dynamic: he builds the tension to excruciating levels with little to no soundtrack, then lets the scene explode in an orgy of violence, crashing noise and throbbing score. Action sequences are similarly vicious: fast and furious, with emphasis on every blow and drop of blood.
I Saw the Devil isn’t a film for the faint of heart – it was rejected by Korean censors for being an affront to human dignity – but neither is it a buckets-of-blood gorefest. What you don’t see is scarier than what you do, they say, but what you hear is scarier than either. This is a movie with some gruesome sound effects that let you know exactly what’s going on; you can cover your eyes, but there’s no escaping the sounds of murder and mutilation. If you’ve ever wondered what it sounds like to slice through someone’s tendon, this is the film for you.
The version screened at the Toronto Film Festival was uncut, and while the emphasis was on it being censor-free, it could certainly use some trimming. At 143 minutes, it’s far too long, and the cat-and-mouse game loses its intensity after so many iterations. The lack of detailed characters means many of the scenes in between the mayhem feel slack and meaningless, and all you want is for the punching and killing to begin again. But after a stellar sequence that finds Joo-yeong hunting more murderers than he planned, much of the rest of the film is anticlimactic. Jee-woon spends most of the movie outdoing himself, but eventually he’s got nothing left to give.
I Saw the Devil lacks the emotional depth to be a truly great film, but Jee-woon makes you forget about that with some tremendous filmmaking. It’s a study in pacing, tension, action and horror, and can keep you riveted to the screen – no matter how much you want to turn away.