A woman’s broken body being dragged through stark-white snow. A human head rolling along a river-bottom, its raven hair swirling with the tides. The flashlights of a forensic team, gleaming off black waters and casting light into even darker skies.
“I Saw the Devil” is a gorgeous film about horrible things. Days after the screening, I still carry its unsettling baggage with me. Korean genre master Kim Jee-woon has assembled this Frankensteinian beast with surgical skill. But do you really want his bloody hands leaving their imprint on your brain?
Remember when “Se7en” was subversive and shocking? Compared to “I Saw the Devil,” it’s a life-affirming lifter-upper. Did “Blue Valentine” bum you out? It’s visual Prozac compared to this cinematic Quaalude overdose. Even so… “I Saw the Devil” is art of the highest order, an unflinching vision brought to full bloom. I love it. I hate it.
“I Saw the Devil” is like pitch-black Charles Bronson with subtitles (it was made, and then banned, in Korea). Elite special agent Dae-hoon (Lee Byung-hyun) is forever scarred by the brutal death of his pregnant fiancée. Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik of “Oldboy,” another feel-bad classic), a deplorable serial killer, is the culprit.
Completely and utterly warped by his lover’s tragic demise, Dae-hoon seeks revenge. But not just any old payback. He wants to toy with Kyung-chul. Wants to maim his nemesis one fleshy bit at a time. Wants to paw, catlike, then watch this lunatic squirm before inflicting the next clawed swipe.
“I Saw the Devil” begins where other thrillers typically wrap up. Early into its first reel, Dae-hoon has already captured Kyung-chul, force-feeding the dangerous cretin a transmitter-pill. While this ingested tracking device remains in the killer’s digestive system, our scarred “hero” can hone in on him. Sever an Achilles tendon, perhaps. Then set him loose again.
But there’s a big problem. The longer that Kyung-chul is toyed with, the more pissed off he gets. Worse yet, he seems impervious to conventional human feelings like pain or sorrow. Each moment out of custody is another opportunity to gleefully inflict more mayhem onto innocent bystanders. By keeping this creeper alive in selfish, single-minded pursuit of vengeance, Dae-hoon is aiding and abetting his prey.
Delicate moments provide respites from the violence – or do they? Two grieving men share a park bench, cocooned by comforting clouds of mist. But their sad, empty eyes merely magnify the impact of their loss. Another scene lingers on the face of a man confronting an awful truth. His hand rises to stunned face, jaw dropping in mortified disbelief.
These are the film’s “light touches.”
As for the “dark” factor…. just when you think the film’s gory cycle of revenge has reached its limit, something even more despicable happens. Think cannibalism, fish hooks, and guillotines. Kim Jee-woon further intensifies the film’s projected human wounds through vivid music and sound effects. Mournful strings. The cold jingle of metal chains dragging across a concrete floor. The dull “clunk” of metal hitting bone.
Strong stuff. But however furious its violence, “I Saw the Devil” is no exploitation film. It’s as serious as a heart attack, posing two fascinating questions: is vengeance really all that sweet? Can a jaded psychopath be “forced” to feel emotion? Kim Jee-woon has perspectives on both, and they’re hit home with maximum impact. Dae-hoon and Kyung Chul come across as real men. We feel for the former. We loathe the latter. Reluctantly, we come to understand both.
“I Saw the Devil” is a dazzling downer. Artistically, it’s a great piece of work. But do we really need another onscreen trip to hell, however well-crafted the hand basket?