Recalling the more sickening edges of “Seven,” the Korean horror film, “I Saw the Devil,” is not an easy sit. Overflowing with rage and acts of torture and ultraviolence, the picture is a vicious concoction, making it a specialized viewing experience, not just a brisk serial killer thriller where good battles evil within a diseased world. Here, good is evil in a certain light, conjuring a disquieting tone of heroism and vigilante justice to brew along with the movie’s substantial hostility.
A madman without mercy, serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) has been stalking rural Korea, preying upon vulnerable young women, taking great delight in the torture and murder of his victims. As the fiancé of Kyung-chul’s recent target, secret agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is emotionally destroyed, vowing to bring down the mass murderer. Instead of simply pursuing revenge, Soo-hyun turns the tables on Kyung-chul, implanting a tracking device inside the killer, setting up a surveillance scenario where the force of justice can easily thwart the force of evil’s wicked plans, elongating the vengeful suffering. However, Kyung-chul is not easily disturbed, with his vile mind taking pleasure in the contortion of Soo-hyun’s eroding moral code.
At 140 minutes in length, “I Saw the Devil” angles for an epic wipe of ugly behavior, examining the futility of revenge by digging around every last moment of despair, cleverly toying with the conventions of the serial killer genre. Director Kim Ji-woon (“The Good, The Bad, The Weird”) establishes a wicked atmosphere of punishment early on, forgoing a routine of suspense to jump to the brutal game as quickly as possible, creating a blood-drenched chess board for the cop and killer to do battle upon. At least for the first half of the feature, there’s a fiery pace here that keeps the film alert and devious, anxious to spring the next trap on viewers to summon disgust, bridging the divide between the two forces of fury.
“I Saw the Devil” is a visceral viewing experience, though one of style and some patience. The director keeps the story bubbling along through procedural efforts from Soo-hyun, who tracks his prey by listening to his every word, following the killer not only to potential victims, but also to another monster, and this one has developed a taste for human flesh. So yeah, this movie’s not for kids. The violence is unflinching, with stabbings, beheadings, and rape competing for screentime, making Kyung-chul the ugliest character of 2011 -- a boastful ghoul who gamely defiles anything in his path, yet retains an unnerving clarity of madness to help guide his delivery of pain. “I Saw the Devil” is a repulsive feature, not always easy to watch, but the gruesomeness holds a thematic purpose, though I’ll freely admit the film leans into a celebration of the macabre one too many times.
Rich with texture and concentration (flecked with a few bravura camera shots as well), the feature is ultimately too long, dragging out the cat-and-mouse game to a point of exhaustion. The climax is nearly rendered unusable due to its glacial pace, excessively stewing in the moment, looking to draw out frazzled mental states as long as it possibly can. The whole film feels like a rough cut in need of some slimming, with a few superfluous moments halting the flow and a mid-movie reveal concerning Kyung-chul’s internal tracking device that’s a little far-fetched, even for a gore zone movie like this.
The AVC encoded image (1.78:1 aspect ratio) presentation is quite erratic, with quality ranging from scene to scene. On the plus side, clarity is quite strong when the transfer cooperates, allowing for plenty of gruesome detail and facial response, while dank set interiors are viewed in full. Colors are capable, satisfactorily separated, with blood red a primary element that never disappoints. When the transfer goes wrong, it looks terribly washed out, with troubling contrast issues and softness that pulls all texture out of the frame. Skintones are generally quite good, with virginal female faces retaining their ethereal porcelain quality. It’s not consistent, but the BD provides most of the elements this film needs to penetrate the senses.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix run on the tinny side, detailing murderous happenings and verbal exchanges without a compelling heft. The suspense is left a little saggy by the thin voices, though scoring is a more consistent element, holding up well in the surrounds without stepping on the dialogue. Drippy, squishy sound effects are interesting, with atmospherics served well in the mix, capturing cavernous death chambers and crowd activity, bringing some life to the circular event. Low-end is sparse, lacking a needed punch to reinforce the violence. An English dub track is also included.
English, English Narrative, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
“Deleted Scenes” (24:50) supply a few more moments of connective tissue to the story, fleshing out supporting characters and the opening of the picture. The major additions include a sex scene between Kyung-chul and the cannibal’s mistress (her role is nearly deleted from the final film), and there’s an alternate ending that keeps Soo-hyun conflicted about his future duty.
“Raw and Rough” (27:06) is an extremely sedate making-of journey, with cast and crew interviews intermixed with B-roll footage, capturing the production in motion. A bit more technical than the average BTS experience (the concentration here is on stunt work), the package is enlightening, just not enthusiastic.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
Overflowing with stunning acts of depravity, churning pits of emotion, and a few traditional genre twists, “I Saw the Devil” casts quite a spell. Even if the whole endeavor limps to a close, there’s enough vivid imagery and teary passion within to fuel several movies. I’m not suggesting the film is pleasurable to watch, but when it fires in full, it’s a compelling, distressing ride.