All South Korean revenge flicks are basically Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie, but this one is even more so. It has a shameless desire to shock. It has fevered bouts of ultra-violence. It has a cat-and-mouse plot freak out. And it feels like it’s stuck on a loop. As I watched I Saw the Devil, I couldn’t help but think of Bart Simpson’s favourite cartoon, with its psychotic mouse and demented tomcat. Here, they’re re-cast as a sneering villain and a sadistic cop. But the entertainment value is the same: you’re meant to salivate over the beatings and the bloody mayhem. The idea that this movie is made by and for intelligent adults is retarded. You’d discover more about the nature of evil by reading the ingredients on a cereal box.
So many women get brutally murdered in this film that I presume the director has recently had a bad breakup. It all begins when a secret agent’s wife gets decapitated. To make it clear that she’s dead, we see her severed head in close-up. Then a clumsy CSI drops the head while carrying it to his police van. Subtlety, we gather, is not high on the director’s list of priorities. This is fortunate, because the rest of the movie makes this scene look like The Remains of the Day. Far from observing a period of quiet mourning and reflection, instead, the bereaved secret agent decides to hunt down the man who killed his wife, to catch the killer, beat him up, release him, and then repeat this pattern, again and again.
It’s all about the futility of revenge, you see. If you’re not that swift on the uptake, director Jee-woon Kim is perfectly prepared to batter you over the head. He’s from the Oliver Stone school of Driving the Message Home. So even the secret agent’s blindingly obvious agenda (i.e. to prolong the agony) has to be explained to the killer, by one of the killer’s mates, before said mate is savagely beaten by the secret agent, to further illustrate the point that the thin line between good and evil is, in this case, a garrotte. Any psychological plausibility is thrown to the wind, because the director can’t be bothered to show inner turmoil. The secret agent’s state of mind is revealed mostly through his haircut. If it’s neat and tidy, he’s sane. If it’s scruffy, he’s gone mad. The killer he’s hunting has, likewise, all the nuanced humanity of a meat hook. When they have at each other, it’s like watching Action Man fight a shark.
This movie hates women with a fury. It’s like the director doesn’t even have a mother, as if he’d been raised by a male wolf, and he learned about girls by watching violent pornography. There are few things queasier than a rape scene which focuses on a woman’s underwear, and in I Saw the Devil, this happens twice. It doesn’t seem to occur to Jee-woon Kim that he’s crossed a line with these editorial decisions. He’s too busy being sadistic to the next girl. The killer’s wisecrack: “Guess they won’t let me drive the school bus anymore!” should be applied to Kim in terms of giving him a camera. He likes it too much when he sees a woman writhe in fear. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I’m pretty sure it’s just nasty.
To recount the full list of violent acts in I Saw the Devil, I’d need a review the length of a phone book. Bits and pieces come back to me: the guy who has his jaw ripped off by the secret agent (that’ll stop him laughing!); the guys who got sliced and diced in a taxi; the final comeuppance of the killer at the end, where he’s not just beheaded, but beheaded in front of his entire family. There aren’t many ways of ending a life that aren’t explored (in grisly detail) here, and it’s all done with voyeuristic relish. But I’m not sure, for instance, that you can be smashed in the face with a fire extinguisher, and then recover with only minor bruises. Something seems a bit off with the movie’s sense of pain. I blame it on cartoons.
A few years ago, South Koreans flocked to see a movie called Oldboy, about a guy who gets kidnapped and held captive for fifteen years; who’s then let out for five days (by his captor) so he can seek his revenge. It was bullshit, in terms of plot, and it owed a lot more to Manga comics than it did to knowledge of real life. But it’s formula: of faux-seriousness matched with escalating depravity, was a winner. I Saw the Devil is the product of Oldboy’s success. It’s made for people who want to see harm done, in close-up, again and again. It’s not so much unflinching, as incapable of flinching. It’s also incapable of depth. Like the cat and mouse cartoon in The Simpsons, this movie is so bloodthirsty it saps your brain.