This heavily-touted offering, which promises bleak thrills and sinister mayhem (it’s from Kim Ji-Woon, director of the magnificent A Tale of Two Sisters, not to mention the star of the glorious Oldboy, Choi Min-Sik), certainly doles out a set of squib-heavy demises and plenty of chopped-up limbs and cracked skulls, but the sum of well-shot parts equal confusingly little.
Snowdrift darkness, a car breaks down; a lone female passenger awaits unlikely help when smiling crackpot Min-Sik taps on the window. A polite demurral of offered help is a meaningless interlude, Min-Sik fails to drive away – Don’t get out of the car! – and we’re soon properly introduced to our serial killer: a flashing rugby-tackle and brief pursual with swishing weapon later, and a grisly end amidst a perversely elegant flurry of snow. The victim’s husband, Lee Byung-hun, on the mobile to her moments prior to ill-fate’s murderous manifestation, takes a sabbatical from pounding the beat and goes after the roaming murderer, gradually narrowing down suspects until the two men converge, and Min-Sik’s rapist psycho is helplessly drawn into a tortuous game of catch and release, until the game goes on too long and he gets away. Until, of course, they meet again.
Nothing quite works in I Saw The Devil. Scenes don’t mesh or conjoin, moments that seem replete with everything needed fall flat, and one moment, be it frenzied or not, fizzles up against the next, and thus it plods, resisting your involvement throughout.
For example: there’s a scene in a taxi that has all the suggestion and necessary elements to be a highlight, and ends up boring you, even as knives are plunged rapidly in-and-out of flesh and the car swerves and careens. It’s symptomatic of the film: it’s well-staged, well lit, well-performed, and it simply doesn’t work. There is no momentum, no interest, and no involvement. Kim Ji-Woon, so good at capricious, clever, downright scary sleight of hand and surprising shifts in tone with A Tale of Two Sisters here has little control over pervasive mood and instead delivers well-mounted scenes that are meaningless and dull.
Similarly, the performances throughout are excellent (though the nature of the storyline, which permits focus on only the two actors in question, blights any alternative, the lack of even subtle, marginal interest in any of the victims renders the film narrower than maybe a storyline tweak might’ve remedied) and entirely wasted. It’s a baggy, uneven enterprise. An attempt at leavening the potentially one-note bloodletting aspect with comedy police ineffectually following both men is ridiculous and adds to the failure. It feels tacked on and it detracts. Director Ji-Woon seems torn throughout as to whether he should introduce more dark humour, ratchet up suspense, play a rape scene for laughs (and there’s a bizarre, crass, annoying scene late on, involving a rape which, considering it’s a rape scene, should surely primarily horrify you – but here it’s just wearyingly misconceived), overdo a murder until it becomes deliberately absurd, introduce a bit of humanity, play to the Oldboy crowd or slow things down. He seems to have no idea what he’s after, beyond the bones of the script, and was presumably hoping that the prolonged duel, and the two admirable leads, would hold the film together. But the director leans too heavily on them, and they can’t salvage a win. Scenes seem isolated, technically intact, but never link adequately enough to form any sense of compulsive coherence. It’s like an identikit film: fine elements, well-cultivated ingredients. But there’s something naggingly absent. It’s a classic case of strange failure, a textbook example of what not to do. Don’t spend too long with a maniac on screen, however good he is: less is more. Don’t lean on talent too heavily at the expense of tightening the plot. Spend a bit longer on characters that are about to be hacked into the afterlife or we won’t care in the least. Don’t outstay your welcome. And so on.
And on top of all the endless quibbles, I Saw The Devil just isn’t dark enough to pass muster. There’s a good madman’s lair, certainly (tilted floor with grid with which to rid the place of the old haemoglobin, a discerning serial killer’s must-have) but it all feels a little too delighted by its comic-book capering sense of half-hearted jolts and blood-splatter to engage as, say, Seven or Ju-On: The Grudge did. If you have this much crimson-spattered carnage in any film, without dramatic urgency or involvement, you’re left with a stodgy series of tiresomely bloody set-pieces you could neither give two hoots about, nor care about the fate of any of the savaged ciphers or even the two headliners, so every potential wince becomes a slightly aggrieved shrug. He’s crazy, totally merciless and not much fun: established. How many blood-smudged donks on the head with a mallet does any scene need? Each arcing blow, were the recipient anyone you were willing to escape, might have cumulative merit, but here it gets a bit comical and a bit old, boy does it.