German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously once said - "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you".
These words summarise in a nutshell what every revenge yarn has ever toyed with. No matter how announced or reticent the film this theme is presented on some level; the idea of a man becoming the monster he's hunting, a tragic necessity of fulfilling the act of revenge means to lose one's soul in the process. I Saw The Devil looks to take this nutshell and bust it wide open in order to examine the contents further, or so we hoped.
Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) loses his wife to serial killer Kyung- chul (Min-sik Choi); his methods are perverse, his targets always helpless females, his motives never revealed. His esoteric grounds for murder are never unearthed because they don't exist. Kyung-chul is a figure of archetypal evil, in fact both he and Soo-hyeon function as archetypes and are never fleshed-out, only existing to paint a picture of black and white later to be drenched in grey. A story we've seen played out many times before.
As Soo-hyeon toys with the killer - the hunter becoming the hunted - we have a mildly satisfying scenario as a sick mind is punished time and time again, always set free to be tortured further down the line. This unfortunately never goes beyond mild entertainment as the table turning events soon becomes drawn out and eventually exasperating. The intense unrelenting violence soon becoming systematic, laid on thick to keep the show moving while never furthering the film's concerns. If Hoon-jung Park's script had provided depth to its central characters then great drama and pathos would make up for tired concepts, however the decision to keep them at an archetypal level leads us to believe the film was etching to prove a point about the human condition - I Saw The Devil does nothing of the sort. As a figure of pure evil killer Kyung-chul could have made a terrifyingly riveting antagonist if we saw Soo-hyeon figuratively square up against the devil himself, this way the film could have lived up to its intimidating title. Instead the film's killer ends up unexceptional, an undeveloped cipher of evil that no amount of onscreen mutilations can make compelling.
Director Jee-woon Kim has made a career out of tipping his hat to genres; his horror film A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003) and crime flick A Bittersweet Life (2005) both took a different glance at their respected fields and brought something to the table, with The Good, The Bad, And The Weird (2008) being unashamed entertainment in the form of homage. But while the latter was a shallow exercise in entertainment, Jee-woon's new tale of revenge acts like it has something to say but doesn't have the gusto to do so. This isn't helped by fellow Korean peer Chan-wook Park and his celebrated Vengeance Trilogy, the final edition also starring Mik-sik Choi as a killer, a detestably memorable villain. Chan-wook's trilogy subverted expectations and perfected the revenge movie, revealing new layers of poignancy and taking the sub-genre to unchartered territory. Comparatively I Saw The Devil appears drastically pale and stunted on the heels of such sublime examples.
When the film arrives at its inevitable climax Soo-hyeon is a hollow man driven to the most monstrous of acts, guilty of the most unspeakable displays of torture even against an incarnation of pure evil such as this. The road to the prize is what keeps the fire burning, getting what you want isn't always what you wish it were. So as Soo-hyeon walks empty - left unfulfilled from the bloody road to retribution - so are we as this film of grande length should have offered something new only ends up a repeated footnote.