Fans of South Korean revenge thrillers, a subgenre whose zenith is arguably 2003’s Old Boy, will have been itching to see this, its latest goregasm. All the elements are in place: an unhinged serial killer (another searing performance from Old Boy’s Choi Min-sik); a vengeful cop with nothing to lose (Lee Byung-hun); a sadistic smorgasbord of torture scenes and bucketfuls of blood spattered across every frame.
Sadly what’s been forgotten in the mix is the kind of character and plot development that made Old Boy such a classic film. As the cop repeatedly captures, tortures and releases his prey in a series of increasingly wince-inducing set-pieces, we’re encouraged to question who the real psychopath is here, but that’s as deep as the layers go. There’s a certain perverse enjoyment in watching a merciless killer receiving a large portion of just deserts, but when it goes on for well over two hours it starts to leave a nasty taste in the mouth.
In its favour, I Saw The Devil boasts some technically astonishing moments – a claret-soaked attack in a car, filmed in one mind-boggling shot, is a triumph of direction and camerawork – and, despite the ugly subject matter, it’s beautifully shot and lit. It’s also unnervingly hilarious at times, which comes as welcome relief amid all the murder, rape and mutilation.
Unfortunately that’s not enough to elevate the film to the status of its genre’s benchmarks, and nor does it help that the story is driven along by a ludicrous plot device – a microphone inside the killer’s stomach that allows the cop to listen in on his conversations, rather than just his gastric acid sloshing about – that’s so unlikely that it constantly pulls you out of the film’s world.
Kim Ji-woon remains a name to watch out for in the future, and when a good enough script comes along, rest assured that he will make a tremendous film. For now though, those South Korean revenge thriller fans will probably find themselves going back to their Vengeance Trilogy box set to satisfy their lust for a bloody, good story.