by Lisa Morton
First off, let’s get something straight: Kim Ji-woon’s new film I SAW THE DEVIL is not the most ultraviolent film ever made, contrary to the numerous reviews stating such. Hong Kong’s lunatic slasher of last year, DREAM HOME (which I previously reviewed for this column) had far more excessive gore. It was also – sadly – a better film.
I say “sadly” because I happen to believe that South Korea’s Kim Ji-woon is quite possibly the world’s greatest filmmaker, and I SAW THE DEVIL – despite its considerable flaws – doesn’t change that notion. There’s no question that every frame is extraordinary, and several shots are just plain jaw-dropping.
There are two big problems with I SAW THE DEVIL, though…or maybe three, if you count the fact that virtually every one of Kim’s other movies is a classic, especially his 2003 A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, which I call the finest horror film of the last thirty years.
I SAW THE DEVIL is a horror film about a serial killer, and it certainly begs comparisons to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, SE7EN, and BLUE VELVET (it even includes a direct homage to David Lynch’s 1986 classic, when a kid poking through a field finds a bag containing a severed ear). It starts with a serial killer, Kyung-chul (played by South Korea’s number one bad guy Choi Min-sik, of OLDBOY and SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE) capturing and killing a young woman whose fiancé, Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), is a government agent. Soo-hyeon uses his police connections to track down Kyung-chul, but that’s just the beginning: He wants the murderer to suffer, so he releases Kyung-chul, tracks him down again, and so on.
The first third of I SAW THE DEVIL is promising, very effective, and incredibly tense. Lee Byung-hun, who’s done fine work for Kim previously in A BITTERSWEET LIFE and especially THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD, is splendid as the tormented agent who shows us in excruciating detail the human tragedy behind an anonymous slaying. In fact, for a while it seems that I SAW THE DEVIL is going to explore this aspect, and it’s heart-wrenching to watch. Kim films the murders without any hint of exoticism or eroticism; they’re messy, painful, awful affairs that spread pain outward from the victim like ripples in a pond. Choi Min-sik plays the killer as pure id; Kyung-chul is a vicious, ugly, stupid man whose all-consuming hatred is directed primarily at women. I guarantee every woman who watches I SAW THE DEVIL will have one of those shivery moments of recognition; we’ve all encountered this man somewhere, and considered ourselves fortunate to walk away unscathed.
Here again, I SAW THE DEVIL offers up the potentially fascinating idea that a serial killer can be an ordinary, ugly man, lacking the charisma and charm of a Hannibal Lecter, the supernatural power of a Michael Myers, or the sheer, almost-comic oddness of a Leatherface…and yet after that forty minute mark, I SAW THE DEVIL makes the first of its big mistakes, when it introduces a second murderer who is indeed all those things, right down to even sporting a leather apron.
It’s asking a lot to expect an audience to buy that the government agent would continually release this walking ball of murderous fury (surprise! He kills whenever he’s freed again), but all pretense of logic flies out the window when Kyung-chul magically hooks up with an old buddy who is a cannibalistic killer. From this point on, I SAW THE DEVIL spirals ever downwards in terms of plausibility. Forget that everyone in this movie can endure endless beatings, stabbings, gougings, strangulations, and bashings; we accept this, after all, in horror movies, even those striving for some sense of realism. No, I SAW THE DEVIL’s script (by Park Hoon-jung) becomes a panoply of those eye-rolling moments that not even the world’s best director can save. Cops act like idiots, story elements are introduced (like two killer dogs) and then abandoned, major characters (Soo-hyeon’s almost-sister-in-law) are simply tossed aside, and even the most stalwart fan of Choi Min-sik’s performance will be screaming, “Just kill this guy already!”
Logic (or, more specifically, lack thereof) is one of I SAW THE DEVIL’s big problems, and the other is theme. After all those false starts, the movie really does come down to nothing more than “to pursue a monster is to become a monster”. There are no clever abrupt left turns here, no revelations (and this from the director of A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, which offered one of the most startling and perfect climactic revelations in all of cinema). The theme, which has been done to death in everything from cheap thriller novels to episodic television, would barely sustain a short, let alone a major feature. There are too many other interesting notions lurking just under the surface – like the toll murder exacts on survivors, or the notion that a serial killer is simply the craziest in a crazy world, or the suggestion that murderous misogyny might be commonplace – but none of those are what I SAW THE DEVIL finally chooses to end with, and more’s the pity.
But Kim’s astonishing direction still makes this a true cinematic experience. It takes some kind of genius to make an overhead shot of an unconscious girl being dragged through snow beautiful. Kim’s Korea is a place filled with joyless decay; even the mansion where Kyung-chul’s flesh-eating friend is encamped is a masterpiece of neo-Gothic design, a brooding example of rotting decadence. The film’s most astonishing scene happens in a cab, when Kyung-chul realizes the driver and his other passenger are robbers. Kyung-chul acts first, and what follows is one of those mesmerizing “how the hell did they do that?!” shots, as Kim’s camera whirls in 360 degrees around the three men in the cab as they fight each other, all while the cab careens out of control. It’s the kind of breathtaking cinema we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker who staged a chase across the Mongolian desert in his last film and a blood-drenched, hypnotic bullet ballet in the film before that.
I’m also a fan of Kim’s scores, and I SAW THE DEVIL is no exception. As with many other Korean soundtracks, Mowg’s music relies to great effect on acoustic guitar, although it shifts to heavy percussion for the action scenes. If it doesn’t quite cohere the way Lee Byung-woo’s gorgeous score for TWO SISTERS did, it’s nonetheless one of the more interesting scores to grace any film recently.
In the end, the best I can say is that I’d recommend I SAW THE DEVIL to those who like blood and are willing to endure a heap of illogic in exchange for plenty of brilliant direction. Don’t expect A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (or THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, for that matter), but if you can suspend some disbelief, you’ll enjoy the ride Kim and his two lead actors provide.
(This review was based on a viewing of the Korean theatrical version. I haven’t yet seen the international version released in the U.S., so your mileage may vary.)