Home > Uncategorized > I Saw The Devil

I Saw The Devil


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.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    It sounds distinctly disappointing.

    I’ve seen a fair bit of Korean film oddly enough, as my reviewing stint for Videovista saw me getting most of the Korean films that came in. I do have a feeling there may be an element of overproduction creeping in – as in too many movies being produced too quickly.

    There’s still some great stuff. Mother was easily one of the better films I’ve seen in an age, but I’ve seen a fair few which were visually strong scene by scene but that were nonetheless much less than the sum of their parts. This sounds in that territory.

    • October 10, 2011 at 7:50 am

      I always have (too) high hopes whenever I watch a Korean film, based on past experience. But that experience seems very far away now; I need to try and take each film on its merits, of course, but something in my head always parps up, as the film starts: This is going to be good! So I’m set up for pretty keen disappointment if the film is even half-decent.

      I think you’re absolutely right: there is a sense of over-production, ov over-reliance on a kind of Scorsese-lite aesthetic, Kill Bill conveyor stuff. As though efficently churning these out with certain elements heeded were enough. And you ‘strong scene by scene’ comment is certainly apt here. Nothing going on at all: but I bet the trailer’s great.

  2. Mary Gilbert
    October 9, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Excellent review though it sounds revolting – but then I’m hardly the target audience. Saw Despicable Me last night which was brilliantly witty and inventive. I wonder if all the creative talent is found in animation rather than features these days. You might want to buy this one and save it for when your little ones are older ( Despicable Me that is – they might need to wait a while for I Saw the Devil)

    • October 10, 2011 at 7:53 am

      Thanks, Mary – I really don’t think I’m the target audience either, any more at least! I think my daughter might be bored by I Saw The Devil – but I will, I think, take your advice on Despicable Me. I didn’t really have a look at that but your recommendation has swayed me. As for the creative talent: I don’t know. I think Pixar has already had its golden age, and Miyazaki can only go on for so long. Not that I’ve seen an enormous amounbt of animation, I must admit, but that which I have seen has rarely been poor.

  3. Marc Gardner
    October 11, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    “and a bit old, boy does it”… tee hee. Nice wordplay, Mr. Monks.

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