I Saw the Devil, the Korean revenge flick filled with sex and violence, has met with a remarkably mixed reputation. There are those who dismiss it as vulgar torture porn and those that see it as another example of the rising stock of Korean cinema. At least one critic calls it "a masterpiece of its genre" and another has listed as the best movie he'd seen so far this year. While the one thing most everyone seems to agree on is the film's shocking violence, the disagreement is really over whether it is violence for violence's sake or violence in the service of a larger point. Is it simply director Ji-woon Kim indulging the audience's blood lust, or is there a message about the effects of violence on those who use it regardless of the reasons.
The film begins when a maniacal serial killer played with eerie realism by Min-sik Choi finds a young woman stranded in her car on a snow covered road, breaks into her car and viciously attacks her. The woman, it turns out, is the fiancé of some sort of James Bond like agent ( Byung-hui Lee), who quickly goes about avenging her death. He, however, is not satisfied with simply putting the killer in prison or even killing him. He wants to make sure he suffers, and so he begins an elaborate cat and mouse game, in which he catches the killer, tortures him a bit and then lets him go, only to catch him again and go through the same process. Unfortunately, as he plays his little vengeance game a lot of innocent people are terrorized, hurt and even killed because he puts the killer back out on the street instead of letting the law deal with him. His final act of revenge it turns out is more or less a variation of the killer's own vengeful acts. In the end, one has to ask if his thirst for revenge and his use of violence hasn't turned the ostensible hero into something just as evil as the killer himself. Just who exactly is the devil in the title?
But even admitting that the film might have a moral purpose, it is still fair to ask if it goes about achieving that purpose with any artistic integrity or does it simply tack on a moral to justify its prurient violence. The answer might lie in the inability of some critics to take the film's violence at face value because of the general lack of realism in the script. The 'hero' pursues the killer without any real evidence that he's guilty. Indeed, he attacks two other suspects before he lights on the real killer. In fact there is very little time spent on actual investigation. A know sadistic serial killer has managed to get himself a job driving a school bus. The police involved in the case are almost as inept as the Keystone Kops as illustrated in the scene in which they discover the first victim's head. The discovery of the evidence against the real killer is so contrived as to be almost absurd. This is not a who done it, and it is not meant to be.
The violence, while matching at times, the kind of slasher brutality you get in the Saw movies or The Last House on the Left, seems at times as artificially stylized as the violence in that classic study of the effects of violent behavior, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. While it may be designed artificially, it is filmed fairly realistically, and it is this duality that makes it difficult to determine the film's aesthetic intent. Kubrick is clearly saying something about the nature of violence. Saw and its offspring are clearly interested in seeing just how far they can go in catering to the sadists and masochists among us. Ji-woon Kim's I Saw the Devil doesn't quite seem to know what it wants to do.