I Saw the Devil is the latest from Jee-woon Kim, director of A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird. It starts off as a fairly standard revenge thriller when agent Kim Soo-hyeon’s fiancee is murdered late at night while waiting for a tow truck to come change her flat tire. The cinematography is gorgeous and evocative, and lead Byung-hun Lee has charisma to spare. He quickly turns his time off from the police force into a private hunt for the murderer, Kyung-chul, played by Min-sik Choi of Oldboy. But Devil is darker than most standard genre fare, and soon Soo-hyeon is plumbing the depths as he realizes the only way he can even attempt to inflict proper punishment is to meet Kyung-chul on his own corrupt moral ground.
But Devil isn’t simply the search for the killer; in fact, Soo-hyeon locates him fairly quickly, and then Devil becomes something different– an exploration of how far a seemingly moral person will go in pursuit of vengeance. Once Soo-hyeon has located Kyung-chul, fought him and mutilated him, he lets him go so that he can continue to hunt him. Soo-hyeon is a cat toying with its prey, trying to prolong the hunt, and with it the fear and the punishment. In that sense, there’s a very visceral truth behind Devil. Yet, it’s also a simplistic one that really only exists in the movies. As focused and clever as Devil is, this is the narrative logic of cinema at work. In the real world, there’s a greater amount of moral ambiguity involved and things aren’t always so black and white. Most people know that you can’t bring back someone already gone, and breaking the law and turning yourself into a criminal to try to exact vengeance is a hollow, pointless pursuit, particularly if in doing so you’re allowing more innocent people to be victimized.
But I suppose this kind of heightened genre storytelling is rarely realistic, and the ultimate aim here is to show how pointless Soo-hyeon’s vengeance is, and how he must transform his own heart into that of a killer’s to be able to defeat Kyung-chul. And to that end, his thirst for revenge simply takes another victim in the protagonist himself. As Soo-hyeon continues to hunt and pursue Kyung-chul, he begins to realize that what he ultimately wants is for Kyung-chul to suffer in the same eye-for-an-eye way his fiancee did. Yet he also begins to realize that because Kyung-chul is a heartless, soul-less, unrepentant murderer, he’ll never get what he wants because Kyung-chul is incapable of suffering in the same way. If he was, if he had the emotional make-up to be able to experience the same pain, grief, regret, fear, and sorrow as the rest of humanity, he wouldn’t be a serial killer in the first place. Which means that not only is any sort of revenge ineffectual, but that the amount he’s had to compromise himself to achieve it has all been in vain.
As these types of genre films go, often requiring a certain suspension of belief, Devil probably could have gotten away with all of this if it had simply stopped there. But while chasing after Kyung-chul, Soo-hyeon follows him to the lair of yet another serial killer, a friend of Kyung-chul’s. And really this is where Devil goes one step too far into ludicrousness. For Devil to work, we need to primarily be concerned about the emotional state of Soo-hyeon and whether he has any piece of his soul left. We need to worry if he’s gone too far and passed some point of no return, or if he can still save whatever shred of his humanity remains. And for that, Devil needs to have some part of it grounded in reality. The last thing it needs is to take a side turn and become a cartoonish carnival of serial killers. Once it goes there, Devil becomes too difficult to take seriously, and the relevance of emotional realities are removed from the table. Devil has simply become a big, crazy, over-the-top theme park ride, yet too dark and disturbing to be considered entertaining or fun.
It’s still artfully executed, and it’s still likely to have its fan base of young males eager for these kinds of stories. At it’s best, Devil is very slick genre storytelling, not afraid to push the envelope and go to far darker places than most. But in taking it as far as it does, Devil loses its own emotional thread and edges into stylish pointlessness, casting aside any aspirations to be something truly hard-hitting and gut-punching, trading maturity for immaturity, and instead pursuing an agenda of superficial, hollow shock tactics.