No Sympathy for Vengeance: Two and a Halfhours of Sadism Fails to Impress
Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)
I Saw the Devil (18)
dir: Kim Jee-woon
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. …