Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival, with an introduction and Q+A with director Kim Jee-Woon, I Saw The Devil sees one of the key crop of Korean film-makers (A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good The Bad The Weird) put his A Bittersweet Life lead Lee Byung-Hun up against Oldboy‘s Choi Min-Sik, in his first film for four years, in a bloody and violent revenge tale that pushed the boundaries for even the Korean censors. With all these elements in place, a surefire success then? Well, almost.
The set-up is pretty standard fare: a special agent’s fiance is brutally murdered by a serial killer, and he takes it upon himself to find the culprit. It’s not long before he’s identified and caught up with his target, and after a savage brawl, he leaves him for dead. Or so it appears. And it is here where I Saw The Devil takes a different approach to the serial killer thriller, as our ‘hero’ starts to play a dangerous game of oneupmanship with the killer, in an effort to draw out his suffering for as long as possible, and our ‘villain’ becomes the victim. This flipping of convention is most interestingly utilised in the familiar stalk-and-slash scenes, but in this instance, it’s the serial killer who is under attack, tip-toeing in the shadows to find out what ‘that noise’ was. One running gag has them continually refer to each other as ‘crazy bastard’.
Still, for all it’s role-reversal, its central themes are hardly original, focusing on becoming a monster to fight a monster, and how the further down the path of revenge one travels, the more hollow one becomes and how it affects the people around them. Therefore, don’t expect a particularly contemplative study on the nature of vengeance (particularly when Park Chan-Wook cornered that market years ago). And no surprises it’s not going to end in sunshine and rainbows, then.
What it does have going for it though is in all the trimmings (and I’m not talking about the cuts in its home country). It’s as stylish and assured a piece of work as you’d expect from Kim, with some exceptionally well-shot sequences (including the best vehicle interior tussle you’re ever likely to see), packed with energy and enhanced with a rich pallete of colour (and yes, a lot of red). Choi Min-Sik typically gives it his all as the killer – no motive, no reason, no cute affectation or signature, just an utterly abhorrent individual with an unquenchable desire to cause young women as much distress and pain as possible. And the film is certainly unflinching in its detail; as the game between the two antagonists escalates, so to does the torture inflicted, resulting in some real ‘look-away-now’ moments.
But in its escalation, the situations become ever more absurd, and I Saw The Devil reveals a darkly comic vein. Of course, the balance of horror and comedy is a fine one, and amongst the yelps and screams from the audience were hearty guffaws as well as nervous titters. It is a handy trick to alleviate the tension from becoming too unbearable and Kim employs it throughout. However, sometimes the humour is incongruous with the genuinely upsetting scenes of abuse and abductions carried out by the killer, much as its venture into out-and-out horror territory towards the end feels at odds with the more grounded earlier scenes.
So, I Saw The Devil is a peculiar beast, a Jekyll and Hyde piece of work – grim but funny, predictable but unexpected, unoriginal but unconventional. Its not as deep as it thinks it is, but its still rich, thrilling, vivid and entertaining. At close to two-and-a-half hours, it may be more than the less hardy cinemagoer can take in one sitting, but if you have the nerve and can switch off the brain, it’s a gripping ride.