I Saw the Devil (Magnet Releasing, NR)

I Saw the Devil is pretty and slick, as are all of Jee-woon’s films, and the sheen distracts in a bad way from the carnage.

There’s a subgenre of horror films dating back to the 70s, known as “video nasties” in the U.K. and generally referred to as grindhouse movies in America (whether the films in question actually played grindhouses or not). They are violent, graphic, and mean-spirited just for the hell of it; they pander to criminals, have low production values, no redeeming morals, are only worth watching for the kill scenes, and are often a hell of a lot of fun. We’re talking Cannibal Holocaust, Last House on the Left, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, and Thriller: A Cruel Picture-grade stuff here. The new film from South Korea’s Kim Jee-woon, I Saw the Devil, is this type of film. However, one thing that makes it noteworthy is that it was made with an uncharacteristically high budget (uncharacteristic for the genre, not for Jee-woon, who helmed The Good, the Bad, the Weird, which to the best of my knowledge is the highest-budgeted Korean film to date) and name actors Lee Byung-hun (The Bad from Good, Bad, Weird, here playing the good guy) and Choi Min-sik (the main character in Oldboy).
The budget works against it. The cruddiness of your average video nasty tends to lend the film the quality of found footage (think Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) while also allowing you to keep a distance from the reprehensible nature of what’s going on onscreen; often the kills are amazingly realistic but the rest of the film is not, so you won’t be able to buy too far into it. I Saw the Devil is pretty and slick, as are all of Jee-woon’s films, and the sheen distracts in a bad way from the carnage.
The “carnage” in question is roughly as follows: There is a violent rapist/murderer on the loose named Kyung-chul (Min-sik), who at the film’s start viciously kills and mutilates a young, pretty, pregnant girl. (Yes, I’m proud of you for catching the Se7en reference; keep your eyes peeled for references to Psycho and Blue Velvet in the first reel, too.) Turns out she was the girlfriend of Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun), a superhero-type with seemingly endless resources and abilities, and Soo-hyeon vows revenge. Of course it isn’t enough for Soo-hyeon to kill Kyung-chul; instead he tracks him down, kicks the shit out of him, and while he’s unconscious he force-feeds him a tracking device that is also equipped with a microphone. Whenever Kyung-chul is about to rape or torture or murder someone else, Soo-hyeon pops up out of nowhere to beat the shit out of him again.
The way the narrative is presented leads to a lot more problems with the film; why doesn’t Soo-hyeon just kill Kyung-chul any of the numerous times he gets the chance? Kyung-chul’s behavior just gets worse and worse and thereby warrants his own death more and more; also the next time Kyung-chul poops the tracking device is gone, and Soo-hyeon knows it, so the charade can’t go on longer than, what, a day or two? And why does Soo-hyeon always wait until Kyung-chul is in the act of raping or killing someone before he stops it? (Well, for the audience’s supposed pleasure, of course.) Can’t he stop Kyung-chul just before he gets to work, rather than just after? And of course there are the criticisms that apply to nearly every film of this genre, like why does Kyung-chul always murder naked, pretty women? (So the audience can ogle their boobs while he’s beheading them or whatever, I guess.)
I’m perfectly tolerant of films like this, and often even enjoy them, but Byung-hun shows none of the imagination, panache, or interesting points of view that people like Takashi Miike, Chan Wook-park, or Gaspar Noe can. Really, nearly everything with I Saw the Devil goes wrong, right down to the translation; you’ll be wondering by the end if the original Korean has the Korean equivalent of the word “bastard” as often as it appears in English—which is to say about every third word. Overall, what we have here is an uninteresting and unpleasant film from a fairly talented and increasingly powerful Korean director who had way too much money and not enough supervision. | Pete Timmermann

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