Two maniacs, hunting and hurting each other for pure perverted pleasure. Multiple horrific murders. Brutal bludgeonings with pipes, hammers, clubs and rocks. Gallons of spilled blood. Torture. Cannibalism. Dismemberment. Rape. At nearly two and half hours in length, I Saw The Devil is surely the Korean revenge thriller to end all Korean revenge thrillers. There’s nowhere left to go from here.
Kim Ji-woon’s film stars Choi Min-Sik, of Oldboy fame, as its primary killer, and immediately references that standout of the genre: during the opening murder of a young lady, Choi pauses, holding a hammer ominously over his victim’s head. No dotted line this time, though. There are also nods to David Fincher’s Seven, most notably through a severed-head-in-cardbox-box scenario early on; Kim, unafraid to heighten the revulsion in the name of fiendish black humour, has his policeman drop the box, the head rolling out in front of a horrified onlooking crowd.
The film needed more of these moments. Whilst its premise – Lee Byung-hun, boyfriend of the murdered girl, wants to perpetually hunt, torture and release the perpetrator rather than simply kill him – is an interesting one, in practice there wasn’t enough invention or wit in the numerous gory set pieces to avoid them becoming repetitive. The plot isn’t fleshed out or the characters developed enough to give any of it much meaning, or tension. It’s just two men hitting each other, over and over.
The saving grace is the outstanding Choi, who embraces the role of homicidal lunatic with relish and drags the film from gruelling punishment towards entertainment again at the denouement, when his derangement reaches fever pitch. As he cruises along in his car, sunglasses on, gleefully shouting into Lee’s microphone bug “You messed with the wrong guy, motherfucker!” one recalls Christian Bale’s off-the-leash phonecall to his lawyer at the end of American Psycho or even the madness of Blue Velvet’s Frank.
Some of the film’s best moments are simply close-ups of Choi’s brilliantly expressive, delirious, bloodied face. His demise at the end is almost a shame… but that can’t be right. He’s too good for this film, which takes violence to extremes to for the sake of it – and ends up leaving us numb.