Another Korean revenge fantasy that negates its moralizing by wallowing in the ghastliness it nominally asserts is unfulfilling and destructive, I Saw the Devil concerns the cat-and-mouse game played by secret service agent Joo-yeon (Lee Byung-hun) and the serial killer, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), who abducted and dismembered his pregnant girlfriend. After that opening bit of bloodshed, director Kim Jee-Woon’s story charts Joo-yeon’s plot to track Kyung-chul, prevent him from killing other innocent females, and beat him to a pulp, only to leave him breathing so that this process might repeat again. And repeat it does, as Kim’s film is itself a maniacally cyclical affair, dragging out its tale with hunter-hunted sequences (all predicated on women functioning as lambs for the slaughter) that always culminate with some sort of extreme gruesomeness. As Joo-yeon plunges himself deeper and deeper into his obsessive quest, he begins—as one of Kyung-chul’s serial-killing pals oh-so-bluntly puts it—“to have fun” perpetrating his mayhem, and that’s really all there is to these faux-profound proceedings: a clichéd, irony-drenched message about how vengeance corrupts the vengeful, turning them into the very monsters they wish to destroy.
If I Saw the Devil doesn’t have a single thought in its blood-splattered head that isn’t borrowed from The Last House on the Left, at least it delivers its hackneyed lesson with some style, as Kim’s direction has a sleekness that’s creepily at odds with his bluntly depicted carnage. A knife fight inside a moving cab, shot with anxiously circling camerawork, is a visual tour de force. Yet Kim isn’t interested in having his aesthetics speak to his material’s critique of violence, and thus his revelry in depravity—the camera’s gaze rarely turning away from murder and sexual assault—winds up trying to elicit excitement and entertainment from (and confer legitimacy upon) the very activities the story supposedly condemns. Consequently, the film is just hypocritical exploitation, which might still be acceptable—exploitation, by definition, need not be morally upstanding or insightful—if the action weren’t so draggy and rote, full of grisly butchery that vainly strives to shock. Identification with Kyung-chul doesn’t in any way complicate or electrify what amounts to a roundelay of increasingly numbing nastiness, and though both Lee and Choi are suitably intense, their characters remain nothing more than stock horror-action archetypes designed to function as vehicles for the film’s pedantic notions about the across-the-board blindness that results from eye-for-an-eye justice.