Kim Ji-woon is one member of a wave of South Korean filmmakers currently doing very interesting things. I Saw the Devil is his latest feature, and continues his Danny Boyle-esque quest to conquer every genre.
He’s done horror (A Tale of Two Sisters), crime (A Bittersweet Life) and even a western (The Good, the Bad, the Weird). Now, with I Saw the Devil, he has entered the thriving Korean sub-genre of revenge-thrillers made popular overseas in 2003 by Park Chan-wook’s excellent Oldboy, the star of which – Choi Min-sik – shares the lead here alongside Ji-woon favourite Lee Byung-hun.
Byung-hun plays Soo-hyun, a policeman whose fiancée is brutally murdered by Kyung-chul (Min-sik). Overcome with grief, Soo-hyun shirks his duties as an officer of the law and goes rogue, tracking Kyung-chul down in order to exact retribution before the police can reach him.
What follows is a narrative which see-saws to and fro between the two men and the acts they commit, building a sustained dramatic tension that, while eventually repetitive thanks to the film’s drawn out length, is successful. This series of events comes about because Soo-hyun wants to make his fiancée’s killer suffer – he won’t kill him outright, but instead chooses to catch him, subject him to horrible pain, and then release him, only to repeat the process again and again.
Ji-woon is an effective technician, and he has an undeniable gift for shot-making, for choreography and for sustaining a kinetic sensation. Ji-woon handles difficult set pieces and violence well, managing not to appear over-indulgent despite the film’s obvious roots in exploitation cinema. But technically impressive though it may be, the film is not a great deal more than surface value. It’s charged with good performances and, my goodness, Ji-woon goes at it full tilt (it requires a fairly strong stomach), but underneath there isn’t a huge amount to savour.
The film joins a busy genre, one which we’ve seen countless times before. Revenge, we know by now, is never the answer. To an extent the film shows this well, but on the other hand it doesn’t tell us anything particularly interesting – certainly nothing new – about vengeance. Now, it doesn’t necessarily have to, but the film’s decision to focus so heavily on violence makes the subtext thin; it’s essentially asking us to deplore vengeance whilst revelling in it. Granted, the film isn’t pretending to be anything else – its intention is to depict violence – but it ends up feeling shallow. Byung-jun’s game of hunting and releasing Kyung-chul also diminishes our sympathy with him – his reticence causes innocents to be assaulted that otherwise would have remained unharmed; again, this is intended to be symptomatic of his loss of clarity, but works against his standing as a sympathetic protagonist.
The plot is a little convoluted at times – why, for example, can’t the entire police force track the killer while one man finds him so easily? – but it would be harsh to judge a genre piece too strictly on that front. What Ji-woon has concocted is a violent, brooding thriller with two strong lead performances and some brilliantly executed set-pieces (just wait for the bravado scen e in a taxi) that is undeniably entertaining. It’s just a shame that it misses out on the same level of emotional weight that something such as Oldboy was able to deliver.