Boonmee’s review published on Letterboxd:
Talk about a directorial turnaround! So, Kim Jee-woon made the bouncy action-comedy western, The Good, the Bad, the Weird (one of my favorite movies) in 2008 and immediately followed it up with this positively humorless, blood-soaked serial killer thriller.
I Saw the Devil is a revenge movie straight out of Korea (which should mean that it's the best kind of revenge movie). Maybe I've been watching too many Park Chan-wook films lately, but the plot here is a lot more straightforward than I expected it to be. A man's fiancée is murdered on a snowy evening by a serial killer (Choi Min-sik) and the widower (Lee Byung-hun) takes it upon himself to track the soulless monster down. But he doesn't kill right away. He means to toy with him, playing a brutal game of catch and release, following him wherever he goes, occasionally beating him half to death before dumping him somewhere to wake up the next day.
When I say "soulless monster," I'm not kidding. This dude is 120% despicable. Not even a slice of humanity. Anton Chigurh-like in his way of leaving a trail of death and suffering wherever he goes, but not as cunning or ghoulish and much more gratified by his sick work.
On the other side of things, the widower is mostly calm and collected. He's like the opposite of Macon Blair's character in Blue Ruin. A little too perfect and efficient with the whole vengeance thing. His character is where my issues start to come in. He doesn't struggle very much (at least not until we're pretty far into the third act) and his "hunting" of the killer takes up the bulk of the movie. His cycle of "follow-pummel-release" in conjunction with the killer's apparent compulsion to bring rape and bloodshed into almost every domain he passes through (even in the midst of this hunting) makes for a somewhat one-note experience.
We don't get an in-depth examination of where this killer's compulsion arises from or even some evocation of the guy as some inhuman entity (like Anton Chigurh — the title of the film had me thinking they were going to make him some personification of evil). When it comes to the widower, the filmmakers are clearly doing the whole "even ordinary people can be driven to terrible acts" concept, but like the villain, he lacks complexity. For a journey into deep, dark, passionate vengeance, there's a distinct lack of emotion. The emotional significance of the inciting incident is seemingly lost most of the time and the film develops a flat coldness as a result.
There's a turning of the tables toward the end with some neat results and the film is immaculately shot and edited with a fantastic sense of tone, atmosphere, movement and tension, but I found little to hold onto beyond the visuals and a few memorable sequences. Very well-made, but I wish the story wasn't so lacking in feeling and nuanced ideas.