Cat and Mouse with “the Devil”
Published on March 4th, 2011 | by L. Caldoran0
Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil” is best approached with one’s sense of disbelief—and squeamishness—kept squarely out of reach. While the basic premise of a cop tracking a serial killer has already served as fodder for countless thrillers and police procedurals, “Devil” quickly becomes a balls-out, blood-soaked revenge drama.
Our hero’s pregnant fiancée is the picture of innocence and goodness, with a little white crucifix perched on her car’s dashboard as she talks of visiting orphans in her spare time. She ends up wrapped in plastic and chained to a dingy cement floor in the kind of pseudo-snuff aesthetic dating back to Japan’s controversial “Guinea Pig” series. Her head is later discovered in a nearby river, after which her bereaved husband-to-be, police special agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), dives headfirst into “Dexter”-style vigilantism (and certainly Dexter, in his day job as a blood-spatter analyst, would have a lot of fun with the aftermath of various lead pipes, knives, and baseball bats throughout this film).
Soo-hyun embraces his mission with a certain zeal that seems a wee bit too intense to be mere vengeance: while tracking a handful of prior sex offenders who are likely culprits, he finds the first suspect masturbating to internet porn in a sad bachelor pad and proceeds to throttle the guy with a power cable before hammering him in the testicles. Perhaps Nietzsche’s abyss has already won this staring contest.
When he catches up with the actual killer, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), Soo-hyun implants him with a state-of-the-art tracking device that doubles as a hidden microphone, gives him some cash, and sets him off on his own, where he soon branches out from serial murder to spree killing—and since he knows his time as a free man is now limited, he sets out to maim, rape, and murder everyone in his path. Soo-hyun only steps in when Kyung-chul is about to harm an innocent, or else to beat him to a pulp just for the hell of it.
Kyung-chul, surprisingly, makes for a more realistic, unromanticized serial killer than most such characters in films of this sort. Lacking the piercing intellect and villainous charisma of Hannibal Lecter or the boy-next-door good looks and charm of a Ted Bundy type, he’s a pudgy middle-aged school-van driver who lives in an isolated hovel with a filing cabinet full of bras, purses, and other trophies from his victims. While he affects a friendly everyman pretense, he still comes off as unsettling and pathetic at best, repugnant and predatory at worst: the first time he appears onscreen, he’s lit in such a way that he resembles a moon-faced ogre.
Kyung-chul is also prone to projection. Despite the fact that we earlier saw him casually smoke a cigarette while chopping up a victim’s body, he frequently reflects that the people around him are “psychos” and “crazy bastards.” He has a special chip on his shoulder about women: when they’re sexually uninterested in him, it’s not because he’s a schlubby, overly-entitled creep old enough to be their father, but because they’re all a bunch of bitches and whores out to get him, a misogynist sentiment that’s hardly exclusive to serial killers and rapists. If it weren’t for his unusually-astute ability to take a beating, escape the law, and know exactly how best to rattle his main pursuer, Kyung-chul would be one of the more accurately-portrayed serial murderers in recent film.
“I Saw the Devil” is undeniably overlong at nearly two and a half hours: a film drenched in this much gore presumably doesn’t want to grow dull and repetitive. The whole concept of a cop afraid of succumbing to the same dark impulses as the man he’s hunting is also rather overly familiar. Fortunately, although it could easily have drowned in self-seriousness to Nicolas Cage depths of unintentional camp, “Devil” is injected with moments of pitch-dark humor: an oddly tense cab ride on a lonely stretch of road, or a visit to Kyung-chul’s old buddy, a jovial cannibal. Speaking of blood and guts: in the vein of last year’s equally torture-porn-friendly “I Spit on Your Grave” remake, the ultimate revenge—without giving too much away—mirrors an earlier act committed by the same perpetrator.