A word of advice – if you’re going to watch a hyper-violent Korean tale of brutality, obsession and revenge, don’t watch the poorly dubbed version with the laugh-out-loud-bad dialogue. Byung-hun Lee plays secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon, a poor man’s James Bond who goes rogue and dedicates himself to hunting down serial killer/rapist/all-round psychopath Kyung-chul (played with convincing intensity by Min-sik Choi), after the killer kidnaps, dispatches and dismembers the agent’s girlfriend. What follows is a gruelling game of cat and mouse, where the lines between hunter and hunter, and cop and killer, become increasingly blurred.
I SAW THE DEVIL is not a film for the fainthearted. The violence is unrelenting and unflinching, and ranges from protracted sexual assaults to IRREVERSIBLE-style head-pulping. One particularly well-choreographed example takes place in a taxi, where Kyung-chul vents his psychotic rage on the driver and fellow passenger. At times the violence feels voyeuristic, and at others just plain repugnant, but it’s never without consequence, as Soo-hyeon discovers to his cost. He tracks down the killer with a minimum of difficulty, but instead of apprehending or dispatching him he lets him live, planting a tracker on him and subjecting him to increasingly sadistic attacks. In the meantime the killer continues his rampage, raping and murdering without compunction, the responsibility for which falls on the agent. Soo-hyeon doesn’t care, as long as he gets his deranged and bloodthirsty revenge.
There’s a lot going on in I SAW THE DEVIL. On one level it’s a character study not unlike Michael Mann’s HEAT, albeit less nuanced and a good deal gorier. On another it’s torture porn of the highest order, with a dash of Asian fetishism for good measure. It’s both naive (the secret agent stuff is laughable) and surprisingly sophisticated (the special effects are excellent and the action sequences are handled masterfully). What is less than masterful is the dubbing. It’s entirely possible the subtitled version is much better, and had it been available I would have watched it, as the dubbing is lamentable. A typical example occurs after Soo-hyeon assaults a suspect by hitting him repeatedly in the crotch with a wrench (itself unintentionally amusing), when one of the cops comments, “Evidence indicates that some bastard hammered his balls really bad.”
If you’ve got the stomach for it, I SAW THE DEVIL is a worthwhile watch. It’s uncomfortable in places, and represents a remorselessly bleak descent into psychological and moral despair, but is sufficiently compelling to make the journey bearable. Just do yourself a favour and either learn Korean or watch the subtitled version.