Korean cinema's raised international profile in the past decade has been largely driven by the twisted revenge dramas of Park Chan-wook. His Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Old Boy and Lady Vengeance might not be the best films produced in the country during the past ten years, but they have been the most widely popular, with Park's dazzling stylistic virtuosity and the bleak, violent content striking a chord with audiences in the west. It's impossible to avoid thinking about those movies while watching I Saw the Devil, a picture that shares key themes with Park's trilogy as well as many of those film's aesthetic virtues, but one which is also riddled with many of the same flaws. I Saw the Devil could almost pass for an unofficial fourth instalment in the trilogy, but it comes at a point when the series feels like it has been done to death.
The director of I Saw the Devil is not Park Chan-wook but his similarly gifted contemporary Kim Ji-woon, whose last three films – A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life and The Good, the Bad the Weird – have shown him to be a skilful and eclectic filmmaker. The opening scene of his latest offering is deeply promising too, presenting us with a young woman sitting alone in her car at night while she waits for the breakdown service to come to her aid. She spends the time chatting with her fiancé Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), a secret service agent, but she is interrupted by another man, who suddenly steps out of the shadows and offers to help. The man is Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), and after she has finished her call he smashes her windscreen and savagely beats the terrified woman with a hammer.
It is a vicious sequence, handled with sensational skill by Kim, who knows exactly how to tease an unsettling sense of pervading fear out of the scene before ending it with a frenzy of violence (and the glance that passes between killer and victim is devastating). The whole of I Saw the Devil's opening hour is like that – taut, vivid and filled with shocking imagery. Soo-hyeon takes it on himself to find the killer, drawing up a short list of suspects and getting into vigilante mode. He brutally deals with two men in cases of mistaken identity before he finds his way to Kyung-chul, and the film brilliantly ratchets up the tension as we wait for the two central characters to go head-to-head.
And that, it saddens me to report, is the point at which I Saw the Devil starts to lose its way. The best part of an hour has elapsed before Soo-hyeon and Kyung-chul meet and have their first bloody tussle, but the curious choices made by Soo-hyeon (viewed to this point as 'the good guy') take I Saw the Devil into stranger and more unconvincing territory. The detective plants a tracking device on his foe and leaves him free to carry on his murderous spree, but every time he finds himself on the verge of committing another crime, Soo-hyeon suddenly pops up to inflict more damaged on the increasingly battered and confused killer ("This guy's a psycho!" he complains). I Saw the Devil is constantly walking a fine line between horror, thriller and pitch-black comedy, but at times it seems almost cartoonish, which ensures its later attempt to meditate on the corrupting and self-defeating nature of revenge feel hopelessly hollow.
With no sense of weight beneath it, the film comes off as sadistic and ugly more often than not, and even Kim's hugely impressive directorial flourishes can't compensate. He stages a series of outstanding set-pieces – there's a cat-and-mouse chase through the home of another killer, and an audacious murder within a moving car – and he gets excellent performances from his two leads. In particular, Choi Min-sik is a pleasure to watch. He's such a magnetic presence on screen, and he plays his character here with great relish, but neither Kyung-chul or Soo-hyeon feel entirely real and, ultimately, neither does the movie. There simply isn't enough narrative here to sustain a film that runs for almost two and a half hours, no matter how astounding the picture may be in every technical department. We're supposed to share Soo-hyeon's sense of profound emptiness at the end of the film, as he realises his long-sought revenge has given him no real catharsis, but all I felt was the emptiness and frustration of another dazzling but shallow Korean revenge drama.
The 18-minute making-of feature has a lot of great footage from the set, showing Kim Ji-woon working out his shots and the cast having a laugh between takes. There are also a couple of short and not particularly illuminating interviews with the director and his two leads
I Saw the Devil is available on Blu-ray and DVD now
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