A person grieving the death of a loved one will resort to desperate measures to cope with their loss. This idea has been explored in strange and disturbing ways in two recent films, Wake Wood and I Saw the Devil. These films differ vastly from the more true-to-life Rabbit Hole (2010), in which people get past tragedy and heal in a reasonable fashion. Rabbit Hole is an excellent film (one of my favorite films of last year), but its realism worked against it in some quarters. A number of critics numbed by the CGI that passes for modern drama or content with the immoral and emotionally flat characters of The Social Network were offended, maybe even threatened, by a film that showed characters working through deeply painful emotions and maintaining with love and duty the most significant relationships in their social network. The film, for all its real emotion, was dismissed by many as grief porn. But those haters who prefer a film that addresses grief in a more fantastic manner need look no further.
Unlike Wake Wood, I Saw the Devil disregards poignancy and moral to focus strictly on blood and gore. Any message that is offered quickly becomes lost in pools of blood. Wake Wood takes the terror approach, which is designed to provoke fear and suspense, while I Saw the Devil takes the horror approach, which is designed to provoke revulsion.
The film starts with a young woman (San-ha Oh) getting her car stuck on a dark, desolate road and calling on her cell phone for a tow truck. While she us waiting for the truck, a hooded figure appears outside of the car and suddenly raises up a sledgehammer to smash open the windshield. The director, Jee-woon Kim, is skillful in building up the tension. The superbly stylishness cinematography provided by Mogae Lee further enhances the haunting mood of the scene. But all of this talent can do nothing to elevate a story as gruesome and muddled as this one. In the end, the terrifying opening promises much more than the film can deliver.
The woman is tortured and murdered. Her fiancé, played by Byung-hun Lee, is devastated when the woman's head is found floating in a river the next day. Lee, a highly skilled and well-regarded federal agent, decides that he will hunt down the killer himself to enact revenge. The agent soon captures the killer and beats him mercilessly. But then, after planting a GPS device on the psychopath, he lets him go so that he can catch him at another time and punish him all over again. It is obvious from the start that Lee's catch-and-release scheme will go wrong. Planting a GPS device on Choi hardly gives Lee control of the situation. The plan might make sense if the killer had his hands chopped off so that he no longer was a threat and real escape was never possible.
Min-sik Choi provides a chilling performance as a hulking homicidal maniac as unstoppable as Jason and as morally perverse as No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh. Although Lee is supposed to be a super-cop, he seems greatly outmatched by Choi. Lee's beating only makes the killer angry and, the angrier he gets, the more dangerous he becomes. Unleashing this enraged beast on the general public cannot serve anyone's sense of justice. The killer, now in this cat-and-mouse game with Lee, is able to come into his own and willfully slaughter anyone unfortunate enough to come into his blood-soaked path. To be honest, I became so disgusted by all of the killings that I never made it to the end of the film.