As human beings, we pride ourselves on thin membranes of civility. We go through life thinking of ourselves as complex, empathetic creatures who – more often than not – are peaceful to a fault but there’s something about the concept of revenge that seems to get us off. Whether it presents itself in the threadbare simplicity of The Virgin Spring or in the ephemeral thrills of the Kill Bill flicks, there’s something innately satisfying about watching evildoers receive their just desserts.
Still, there’s a little part of us that feels guilty taking pleasure in such barbarity. A part that wonders where to draw the line between offender and avenger and how deep someone can sink into the murky depths of vengeance before they lose themselves entirely. Exactly how much violence is justified? Is violence ever justified?
These are the questions posed in Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil, a ballet of brutality that rivals even the most blood-soaked films of its ilk. The story hinges itself on Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee,) an NIS agent whose fiancée is brutally murdered by a chauvinistic serial killer named Kyung-chul (played with gleeful abandon by Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi.) Initially, Kim is shattered and he spends a lot of time contemplating his wife’s fevered, final moments. He imagines the anguish that she must have endured at the hands of this madman and vows to enact a terrible revenge.
Where most revenge films would spend the next hour-and-a-half essaying Kim as he kills cronies and follows Kyung-chul’s tracks, I Saw the Devil makes short work of the mystery. It isn’t long before the killer’s identity is brought to the agent’s attention, but instead of quickly taking him out, Kim fits Kyung-chul with a hidden tracking device and sets him out into the world. He’s determined to wring every ounce of suffering that he can from the lunatic and every time Kyung-chul comes close to taking another victim, Kim swings in like a sadist superhero. He breaks his bones, slashes his skin and slowly corrodes his sanity. Soon, the line between victim and assailant is blurred into an ugly, crimson smear and although we’re well aware of Kyung-chul’s crimes, we can’t help but feel some sympathy for the Devil.
Aesthetically, I Saw the Devil is a towering achievement. Both Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi excel at playing broken men who need to break things. Their interactions bristle with electricity and pain and their (many) fight scenes are choreographed to the point of perfection. Mogae Lee’s photography is another standout – alternately lush and nightmarish – and is on par with any American film released over the last few years. Where the film ultimately falters is with its script, however.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours long, the film is a flabby beast. While the screenplay is clever and boasts a hell of a twist on genre expectations, it’s practically anemic in terms of plotting. The first half of the film is almost relentlessly entertaining, but the second begins to buckle under the weight of violent repetition. You can only watch Min-sik Choi’s character suffer for so long before his punishment begins to feel pornographic. Soon, the film’s few glimmers of genius are eclipsed by an overwhelming ugliness. By the end of the I Saw the Devil, I found myself stranded in the misery of its two primary characters and practically begging for Kyung-chul’s inevitable death.
Maybe that was the point.
I Saw the Devil boasts a good, if not great, Blu-ray release. The image is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and detail is rich and sharp. The blacks are suitably deep (which is good, because there are a lot of ‘em) and skin tones and crimson flourishes practically burst from the screen. There are tiny bits of edge enhancement, but nothing substantial and overall, this is a strong transfer.
The disc’s 5.1 DTS-HD mix is equally impressive and sound effects come through clean and crisp, bringing the film’s many crunches, slices and wails of anguish to screaming life. Mowg’s original score is also well represented in a master that sounds layered and expansive, casting a dark ambiance that helps to elevate the film.
Features are underwhelming but not unwelcome, with a gallery of deleted scenes (24:50) that would have completely sunken this already overstuffed ship and an interesting, stunt-oriented making-of called Raw and Rough: Behind the Scenes of I Saw the Devil. (27:06)
Overall, I Saw the Devil is a noble failure that attempts too much and, ultimately, not enough. While it’s built on a fascinating pretense, its high concept isn’t quite enough to justify its runtime and the film feels simultaneously light and leaden. Still, its combined ambition and technical merit is just enough for me to give I Saw the Devil a light recommendation, but be warned, this one ain’t for the faint of heart.
Overall, I Saw the Devil is a noble failure that attempts too much and, ultimately, not enough. It's still worth a watch though.