Kim Jee-woon’sI Saw the Devil is difficultto recommend, yet even harder to look away from. With violence so unflinching it’s repulsive, the South Korean film follows a serial killer and a man seeking revenge for his fiancée’s murder. It’s a little Death Wish and a lot Saw, though the term “torture porn” doesn’t exactly apply. For once, all the bloodletting really does seem to be in service to the plot. Whether you like it or not.
I Saw the Devil begins peacefully, from the perspective of a driver coasting quietly in a small bus amid light nighttime snowfall. Then we see a young woman in her car on the side of the road, gabbing on a cell as she waits for a tow truck. She’s talking to her boyfriend, Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), a secret agent who urges her to wait for assistance, when the bus driver (Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi) offers his aid. She politely refuses, and he returns to the bus but doesn’t leave. By now you’re getting queasy; this can only end one way.
The driver, Kyun-chul, returns to bash her head in with a hammer and drag her body through the snow. We next see her still breathing, naked, and wrapped in plastic. “Her skin is so soft,” he murmurs. “This will be easy.” She begs for her life and confesses she’s pregnant. It doesn’t matter. He kills her, skins her, and butchers her to pieces. Soon the police find her head in a nearby lake, as Soo-hyeon and the woman’s father, a former police chief, watch in shock.
With the help of his almost-father-in-law, Soo-hyeon soon narrows the suspects to four and starts beating each senseless until he hones in on Kyun-chul—and finds his girlfriend’s ring in the killer’s bloodied lair. Soo-hyeon soon catches him, interrupting the rape of a schoolgirl (“I can like you if I want!,” Kyun-chul chillingly growls to her. “Damn bitches in the world are always against me!”) and, yes, beats him senseless, too. So, end of movie, right?
You wish. This is only the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game, aided by a tracking bug that Soo-hyeon shoves down Kyun-chul’s throat. But though Soon-hyeon often appears more superhero than special ops—this guy can scurry up a building like Spiderman—he doesn’t stop Kyun-chul from attacking again, with a particularly gruesome scene involving an unfortunate cab driver who picks up the psycho in the middle of the night. Multiple, lightning-fast stabbings are involved, and the sound effects alone are stomach-churning. Another villain is eventually introduced, lending a twisted reasoning to Kyun-chul’s kills.
It’s not always satisfying to watch the murderer being tortured himself, yet the narrative (by Hoon-jung Park) is surprisingly propulsive considering its seemingly straightforward raison d’etre. Its tone, needless to say, is ink-black, its vicious antagonists and frequent quiet recalling Silence of the Lambs. (Ladies: After seeing this, you may never want to leave your house again.) In addition to the head-bashings and knifings, ankles are slashed, cheeks are punctured by screwdrivers, and jaws are ripped open by hand. It’s gruesome and, unlike some of its cousins-in-violence, not an ounce of it is fun—this is more procedural than horror, only with a vigorous vengeance angle. You may question why Kim felt compelled to turn in a film so graphic, yet it’s all too expertly orchestrated to dismiss.