I SAW THE DEVIL Review
When a serial killer claims the life of his pregnant wife, secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee of Kim Jee-woon's previous two features) takes it upon himself to single handedly track down the man responsible and avenge her death. Soo-hyeon works his way through the prime suspects, torturing them into confessions until he gets his man. So far, so typical. Through ruthless efficiency he quickly comes face to face with the killer, Kyung-Chul (Oldboy's Min-sik Choi), at which point the film takes a less conventional path. Rather than seize the chance to end things there and then, Soo-hyeon lets his prey go (after a none too light beating). With the help of a hi-tech tracking device, which also transmits audio from the killer's voice and those in close proximity, our secret agent embarks on a campaign to gradually wear him down. Thwarting further attempts at sexual assault and murder, he systematically steps in at the last moment and each time beats, stabs, slices and/or tortures Kyung-Chul into submission before releasing him. And so goes an elongated psychological battles of wills and second-guessing.
I Saw The Devil is a striking film, shot beautifully with some hugely imaginative set-pieces. One particularly memorable car ride is enough to condemn hitchhiking for good. It's a typically excessive flourish of inspired craziness that's both hysterical and jaw-dropping, with some dazzling camera-work. This is when the film's at its best, with a super-dark streak of black humour tempering the on screen gruesomeness of the set-piece murders (and attempted murders).
Sadly the narrative thread that pulls the action together doesn't sit well. Min-sik Choi becomes a caricature pretty much straight after the hugely tense opening murder, and rather than frighten he verges on becoming a figure of fun. So too, this isn't a mystery in any sense - it's all laid out from the opening scene. It's just a question of if and how he'll be caught, which puts a lot of pressure on keeping the dynamic between hunter and hunted enthralling. Soo-hyeon's journey into a very dark place, however, is treated with a po-faced seriousness that questions if his tactics make him just as bad as the man he's hunting down. It's really not that profound an exploration, and when the series of intended emotional sucker punches come, they're weak and strangely unmoving. Added to which the whole thing is a good hour too long at 141 minutes, so by the end you're starting to feel repeatedly beaten down rather like Kyung-Chul.
Make no mistake, this is strong stuff. Even those familiar with some of Korea's more intense offerings may find a couple of awkward moments here. That said, the intensity dwindles as the runtime increases and no amount of skull bludgeoning can make up for what at times becomes a faintly boring revenge flick. There's just not enough meat on its single-minded agenda to sustain the story throughout. A final glimmer of insight does surface at the climax, neatly articulating the pointless nature of revenge as Kyung-Chul asserts why Soo-hyeon has 'already lost'.
I Saw The Devil is distinctive, technically exciting and intermittently gripping, yes. But it's also emotionally muted and fails to keep up the momentum required for such an epic take on the genre.
I Saw The Devil is out in UK cinemas on 29th April 2011, and available on DVD and Blu-ray from 9th May 2011 through Optimum Releasing.
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