Ben Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
I wasn't a fan the first time I watched I Saw the Devil. I was left pretty cold towards it. I didn't even think it was Kim Jee-woon's best film (for me that's a tie between A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life). It had its moments, but there were "better" Korean films that deserves a bigger audience, Shadows in the Palace for example.
Since then I have not really discussed it or thought that much about it unless it was brought up in conversation. However, in recent weeks, with such a focus Korean cinema at the moment (thanks to Parasite-mania) I have seen this film come up again and again as a recommendation. This lead me to thinking... Was I wrong? Fast forward to 2020, nearly 10 years after that initial viewing and honestly, not much has changed.
Let's be clear, I am not saying this is a bad film, its more to do with the fact that I don't see the point. Kim Jee-woon is usually such a smart director, even when dealing with popcorn fodder for the masses he injects innovative ideas that push the limitations of what you expect to see from such a film (see The Good, The Bad, The Weird as a prime example). This is what is so different about I Saw The Devil, it just feels so generic and by the numbers.
What was the message? To catch a monster you have to become a monster? The continual descending spiral that is revenge? Maybe even a statement about violence towards women and how we, as men, have a far greater responsibility to keep our own in check rather than turning a blind eye when it doesn't involve us. I just didn't get anything from it, and thus I didn't feel it was anything special.
OK, so if anyone actually ever reads this (and judging by my history with such things, that is very unlikely) I can hear them thinking "Not every film has to have a message, it can just be entertaining", which is something I totally agree with (see Martin Scorsese's comments about Marvel, something I agree with to a point but in a less asshole like manner), but this positions itself like it should be more than just entertainment. It is not a "fun" watch for a start, it is a grueling film, one that puts it's actors and audience through the brutality of violence with a personal vendetta, it all just felt a bit... Pointless.
I Saw The Devil is well made with good performances from Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun (who I would watch eat toast), but with nothing to say, every action, reaction and quest for revenge just feels empty.