This week: isolation, abuse, and vengeance in Yang Chul-soo’s provocative horror-thriller, Bedevilled. World On Film is currently on break from its main series of film reviews, but having watched this recently, I couldn’t resist throwing in my two cents’ worth. Fans of Korean cinema can also read my brief account of my time at the 2010 Pusan Film Festival.
(2010) Written by Choi Kwang-young Directed by Yang Chul-soo
“There are kind people?”
When Hae-won, a highly-strung and unsympathetic young woman, is forced to take sick leave from her high-pressure job as a clerk in a busy Seoul bank, she decides to recuperate on Moo-do, the remote southern island of her birth. There, she is reunited with childhood friend Bok-nam, who unlike Hae-won, never left the island in search of greater fortunes, and lives with a violent wife-beating husband, a brother-in-law who routinely rapes her, and village elders who despise her for being a woman. Matters reach breaking point when her husband turns his lecherous attentions to their young daughter, and Bok-nam can finally endure her abuse no longer. However, her friend even now may not be on her side.
Script-writer Choi Kwang-young quickly earned a name for himself in 2010 with the release of two crime-thrillers, the first being Secret Reunion, which I reviewed last year. While it fell far more into typical odd-couple comedy territory, Secret Reunion did nonetheless contain some quite brutal murder scenes, suggesting that Choi might well have intended his tale of a North Korean assassin infiltrating the South to be far darker. Bedevilled, therefore, feels like the next logical step.
Meanwhile actress Seo Yeong-hie had by this time already proved herself a veteran of grim, blood-splattered thrillers, having played one of the lead roles in The Chaser, in which police struggle to catch a twisted serial killer who preys on young women in a downtown suburb of Seoul. There, Seo gives a memorable performance as one of his prey, and in going on to play the tortured character of Bok-nam in Bedevilled, has seemingly become the go-to performer when casting abuse victims. Hardly surprising, since in Choi’s uncompromising melodrama, the female protagonist is put through the wringer akin to those in Pascal Laugier’s squirmfest, Martyrs, with Seo providing a painfully incredible, and indeed real, performance.
Some viewers may have trouble agreeing with this verisimilitude, given that the island is populated by a series of characters so horribly sadistic and sociopathic that it may be hard to accept the idea of anyone in real life being so horrible. However, Choi draws his characters from the cultural wellspring of what is still one of the most patriarchal societies in the world, where historically man was the undisputed ruler of his domain and woman was his property, there only to tend to his needs. Since it was the traditional male role to look after the parents in their dotage, men were valued far higher than women, who would inevitably marry into another family, and daughters-in-law were therefore little better than indentured servants. This attitude is compounded still further in the rural setting we see here, where only men are deemed capable of the endless physical labour required for survival. Korea’s gender imbalance is testament to the enduring nature of the long-held Confucian belief, and only beginning to dissipate in more modern times. Bedevilled’s cast sits at the extreme end of the scale, which Choi has taken to its logical conclusion: a remote island populated by characters uneducated, far from modern social attitudes and driven to antisocial behaviour due to their isolation, and the almost Wrong Turn-like devolution is the result. However, it is not a cheap shot commentary on the isolated community of hillbillies, but the effect they have on their unwitting servant that sits at the heart of the film.
Bedevilled is something of a catharsis for every woman who has ever suffered the indignities of male-dominated social imprisonment. That same society teaches such women that suffering is part of existence, and something they must bear with fortitude, no matter how great or for how long it may be inflicted upon them. Kim Bok-nam however, is taken over the edge, and when the moment comes, Bedevilled rapidly begins to earn its slasher-horror stripes. On the one hand, it plays like a very typical Korean melodrama, with abuse and indignity piled upon the tortured lead until you begin to wonder how anyone could possibly endure any more. This is contrasted with the character of Hae-won, played by Ji Seong-won. She too is a victim of a male-dominated world, but is both too afraid to confront it and lashes out the wrong people because of it. Yet her abuse is inflicted in stages rather than as dramatically as Bok-nam’s, pushing her into self-absorbed narcissism rather than sympathetic compassion, depriving Bok-nam of her one remaining lifeline to sanity. This is of course is necessary if Bok-nam’s eventual descent into madness and quest for swift revenge is to be believable, and not simply the cheap contrivance of B-grade horror. Precisely because it is done properly is why Bedevilled is so powerful, and in a cast of such thoroughly unlikable characters (again, necessary to justify what is to come), it is the murderer with whom we ultimately have the most sympathy.
“Bedevilled is something of a catharsis for every woman who has ever suffered the indignities of male-dominated social imprisonment.”
For all this, the script is unburdened by heavy-handed morality. There is a complete lack of “This behaviour is wrong because…” or “That’s what you get for being a rapist!”-type dialogue throughout. Bok-nam, who had known no-one else but the unsympathetic islands her whole life, has no basis for comparison for most of the film, thus her judgement is based purely on her experiences, allowing for an organic rather than didactic tale despite its pro-feminist overtones. It would be hard to imagine the inevitable Hollywood remake treating its viewers in such an intelligent fashion.
Shot on location on Geum-o Island in Korea’s south, Bedevilled has the perfect visuals to create its prison-like setting, contrasting them with Seoul’s concrete wilderness, which is not necessarily seen in a much better light, where misogyny is no less rife. Full credit to cinematographer Kim Gi-tae for simultaneously bringing out the stark contrast between these two locales yet showing their dark similarities.
The film does suffer from certain issues, firstly a tremendous jump in the action at the climax, presumably done for reasons of time, but standing out a mile. It raises questions about how certain characters manage to end up from one location to another given their predicament, and is something that director Yang Chul-soo cannot have failed to miss. Also, while the gore scenes are for the most part handled as realistically as one could imagine them being, Bedevilled does suffer a little from Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees syndrome, where antagonists cannot possibly have managed to survive the death blows inflicted upon them so unharmed, forcing the audience to put the superhuman endurance down to masses of adrenaline caused by madness. Still, noticeable though they are, the discrepancies do not undermine the story’s principal aims, and one way or another, Bedevilled burns its mark into the psyche – or should that be ‘slashes’?
Full marks finally for the subtitles on my copy, which being the official release, should be the same for you as well. You know a film is being translated well when the subtitler works hard to capture dialect and slang in another language. In Moo-do’s grotesque denizens, it manages to heighten their inhumanity, while in Bok-nam, it brings out the simple, country girl who yearns for both affection and to see Seoul, which through Hae-won, she has equated with the entire world beyond.
Ironically, I have yet to meet any Koreans who have seen Bedevilled, although that’s clearly just the people around me, and they all knew it by reputation. Its dark, unsubtle character study and melodramatic brutality, not to mention blood-splattering second act will not endear it to many, but when viewed in the right context, which I have hopefully established for the reader above, it functions as an extremely powerful film and comes highly recommended.
In case you’re wondering, the original Korean title, which rather gives everything away roughly translates to ‘The Circumstances Surrounding Kim Bok-nam’s Homicidal Episode’. Then again, subtlety is not the point of the exercise here.
And now, for something completely different. Several months ago, I had fun writing about two of my favourite soundtracks to films I hadn’t actually seen before. While a good score should arguably be inconspicuous, it takes on a whole new meaning when heard in isolation. On this occasion, I look at two soundtracks to films that I would go on to see and attempt to put what I at least can hear into words – a possibly foolhardy and ill-advised effort that may make counting sheep an adrenaline-filled rush by comparison. The two scores thus afflicted are Neil Diamond’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and Victoria Kelly’s Under The Mountain next, when World On Film returns.