If I Saw the Devil is to be believed, revenge is a dish best served scaldingly hot, in a variety of bite-sized portions doled out at unexpected moments over several weeks. With this oppressively grisly movie, the South Korean director Kim Jee-woon seems to be telling his more infamous countryman Park Chan-wook that anything Park can do, he can do nastier. Admirers of pictures such as I Saw the Devil, or Park's Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, often deploy the adjective "Jacobean" in their defence. "Gloating" seems nearer the mark.
The film opens with an attack on a young woman on a remote country road during winter; in the combination of serene beauty and frenzied violence, it's like witnessing a bloodbath in a snow globe. The assailant, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), keeps his prey alive just long enough to take her back to his lair to dismember her. The bad news for him is that the victim was engaged to a single-minded special agent, Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), whose bosses sign him off on a fortnight's statutory vengeance leave.
From that moment, Kyung-chul never knows when his new stalker might pop out of the shadows and bash his face in with a fire extinguisher, or slice through his heel with a scalpel. Regaining consciousness after one such dust-up to find that Kim has left an envelope of cash in his lap, enabling him to carry on his bloodthirsty pursuits, Kyung-chul gasps: "The guy's a fucking psycho!" That pot/kettle moment might even be amusing if the film were not otherwise so soulless. There's an adolescent sensibility here which decrees that humour is the enemy of profundity. All I know is that when Kyung-chul told one woman, "Strip before I cut up your face, bitch," I felt myself pining for the repartee of Hannibal Lecter.
Kim's mission to string out Kyung-chul's misery as long as possible is indistinguishable from the film's attempts to cram in as much sickeningly inventive torture as can be imagined. There are flashes of a compensatory humanity that could have shone through fiercely in another movie, one that wasn't torn between drooling over violence and moralising about it. When Kyung-chul's ageing mother examines her son's mugshot, she looks crestfallen, and asks: "How come he looks so scary?" That scene feels like a reprieve, for characters and audience alike. For the most part, the picture breaks up its monotony of painstaking sadism only with the monotony of psychological clichés. "You can't become a monster to fight a monster!" is about the size of it.
The pattern in I Saw the Devil of sensationalism followed by penitent sobriety is exemplified by the scene in which police are dragging a lake. First, an overexcitable member of the search team cries out "We've found the head!" with a jubilation more befitting the receipt of one of Willy Wonka's golden tickets. Then the cop trips on the riverbank, sending the head flying in full view of photographers who start merrily snapping away. Honestly, Gwyneth Paltrow in Seven never had to put up with this sort of treatment. The whole exploitative scene is rounded off with a close-up of the victim's father looking bereft. Surely Kim Jee-woon is experienced enough to realise that you can't have your severed-head-tossing scene and still get to mourn the tragic loss of human life.
As the movie ground on, I started wondering what separates the revenge stories peddled by Kim and Park from those in vigilante fantasies such as Death Wish or The Exterminator. The earlier pictures were scrappy and artless, but should the inability to frame a shot in an interesting way count against them? Certainly, they would be marked down for plotting the psychology of revenge along racial lines. (I first realised the power of cinema as propaganda when, as a child, I overheard a family friend confessing how frightened she had become of black people since seeing Death Wish II.) But unlike I Saw the Devil, those pictures are honest in their bloodlust. They don't pay lip service to the idea of vengeance consuming the avenger, and they don't try to pass off their titillation as insight. After enduring nearly two and a half hours of unvarying sadism in Kim's picture, only a diehard masochist could swallow such burnt offerings. l
I Saw the Devil (18)
dir: Kim Jee-woon