By Paul Quinn, founder of the excellent Hangul Celluloid.
Ask almost anyone with even a vague knowledge of Korean cinema about continually prevalent K-film genres or themes and at some point in their response they'll likely mention more than one example from a near plethora of Korean revenge thrillers and cinematic tales of bloody retribution. While any discussion of genre predominance is of course multi-faceted, the fact that a country's cinema can almost not fail to be influenced by its nation's psyche - inherently reflecting trials and tribulations faced nationally - to my mind speaks volumes about the origin of Korean cinema's regular and ongoing use of revenge narratives: By its very definition, revenge comes as a direct response to wrongs suffered, oppression and/or repression and with Korea historically having had to endure not only decades of occupation by Japan - during which time repeated efforts were made by the Japanese to completely eradicate Korea as a nationality, including the banning of Korean language films from 1942 until 1945, when Korean independence was finally secured - but also subsequent years of stringent cinematic constraints and censorship instigated by the Korean government itself, the revenge genre has since provided opportunities for filmmakers to produce searing entertainment at the same time as, perhaps subconsciously, allowing a kind of audience catharsis by way of indulgence in fictional tales of vengeance and retribution where no national revenge could or would ever be sought in reality.
As some of you may be aware, the gradual alteration to depictions of women in Korean cinema, in tandem with their gradually changing place in society itself, has become somewhat of an obsession of mine over the years and, as such, the two reviews forming the remainder of this article are presented with the intention of giving a glimpse into their use alongside overarching social commentary within the revenge genre. Why choose two films depicting female revenge? Well, they say “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” and certainly as far as Korean cinema is concerned a truer phrase has seldom been spoken.
Bedevilled (2010 – Directed by Jang Cheol-soo)
Hae-won (Ji Seong-won) is a rather cold, emotionally closed woman who works at an unnamed financial company in Seoul. Following her harsh treatment of a customer, and her subsequent hitting of a female work colleague, her boss orders her to take some time away from work and so, for some much needed rest and recuperation, she travels to the small island of Mundo, where she had lived as a child.
There she is reacquainted with her childhood friend Bok-nam (Seo Yeong-hee) who seems even more overjoyed to see her than even old friends would be expected to, but as they begin to spend time together in the beautiful surroundings, it becomes increasingly apparent that the island is not as idyllic as it first appeared. Bok-nam is a virtual slave to both the brutal males and the controlling matriarchal older women on the island; is routinely raped and beaten; and left with nowhere to turn – and no-one other than Hae-won to turn to. However, despite Bok-nam's repeated pleas for help from her friend, Hae-won refuses to get involved, and when events transpire which threaten to put Bok-nam's daughter in a similar nightmare situation to that of her mother, Bok-nam decides that her only option is to take matters into her own hands, and save herself and her daughter by taking bloody revenge on all those involved...
Pigeon-holing Bedevilled into a single genre category (apart from using the generic 'horror' terminology) is an almost impossible task:
Though there are a great deal of graphically brutal murders, instigated, in succession, by the same hand, a 'slasher film' Bedevilled is not; though the theme of revenge pervades the film, describing it as such is a major over-simplification of proceedings, and ignores vital levels within the plot; and, though there are clearly feminist implications within the narrative, the actions of the 'murderer' are aimed at not only the men of the island (who can do anything and everything they please, to whomever they wish), but also the older women, who are equally guilty (as they allow the men their vicious freedom as a result of their heartfelt belief that things are supposed to, and should, be this way), and, as such, proceedings feel much more like an individual's attempts to put an end to a nightmare cycle of abuse – whatever the nature of that abuse is, whoever it is aimed at and indeed caused by.
In fact, the entire structure of control and power on the island is a deeply twisted affair (with matriarchal control upholding an underlying patriarchy), as are the majority of its inhabitants – at one point, for example, the matriarchal grandmother of the community (Baek Soo-ryeon) even explains away male sexual brutality against Bok-nam by proclaiming "A woman's only truly happy when she's got a dick in her mouth."
Bedevilled is a slow burning film (in classic Korean style) by any definition of the phrase, with the first killing not taking place until well over halfway through the film, but though fans of faster moving fare may find the lengthy buildup somewhat frustrating, it allows viewers to witness Bok-nam's repeated (and almost constant) physical, mental and sexual abuse in what feels like close to real time. Not only that, but it also serves to rack up the tension incrementally to the point of utter discomfort, almost in tandem with Bok-nam's increasing desperation, pain and fear. As a result, when the violent retribution finally begins, it comes with a palpable sense of relief (to both Bok-nam and audience members) and ensures that viewer empathies are firmly placed where (and with whom) they should be.
Though Bok-nam's trials form the focus for the majority of the film, Hae-won's tale plays an equally important part in the plot and, in fact, as the conclusion draws near, both stories combine to show that actions (or indeed a lack of action) can have far greater consequences than could ever be imagined, for both individuals themselves and also those connected to them.
Bedevilled has, without question, one of the most moving (and one of the most powerful) endings to a film featuring this much graphic brutality that this reviewer has ever seen. Deeply poignant, it will stay in the mind to an equal, or even greater, degree than the violence earlier witnessed, and the combination of both ensures that Bedevilled is a film that is not easily forgotten.
Cinematically, Bedevilled is confident and accomplished. Director Jang Cheol-soo has, in the past, worked as an assistant director to auteur Kim Ki-duk, and it shows: Arrestingly beautiful imagery of stunning vistas (beautifully framed throughout) are juxtaposed with intimate, claustrophobic scenes of brutal, graphic violence, with each complementing the other.
The majority of the characters in Bedevilled, apart from Hae-won and Bok-nam, are little more than caricatures, serving only to place the two main characters in the required situations. However, that isn't necessarily a criticism in this instance, as that really is all they are needed for plotwise, and their lack of depth is in no way detrimental to the main characters' tales. Each of the supporting cast provide perfectly adequate performances throughout, even within their somewhat constrained proportions.
Ji Seong-won plays the role of the cold, largely unlikeable and emotionally hardened Hae-won with aplomb, especially in the final stages of the film when her character is finally allowed to open up, to a certain degree, and dwell on the consequences of what she did, and didn’t, do. Unlikeable her character may be, but thanks to her portrayal, viewers will nonetheless truly feel for her in the final stages of the film.
However, the performance in Bedevilled which leaves all others completely in the shade is that of Seo Yeong-hee, playing Bok-nam. Accomplished, impassioned and incredibly emotional, while remaining utterly believable, Seo Yeong-hee 's portrayal plays a huge part in the overall resonance of her character, her actions, and, in fact, Bedevilled as a whole.
A slow burning film which racks up the tension incrementally, Bedevilled builds to unleash violent, bloody retribution within a tale which is ultimately powerful, poignant and deeply moving.
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