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Monday, July 15, 2013

Revenge Week: Recent “Women's Revenge” Films and The Curious Case of Bedevilled

Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).

By Kyu Hyun Kim, Associate Professor at UC Davis and contributor.

Revenge is a mostly human behavior (I am loath to call it “uniquely” human: who knows, maybe there really is a killer whale like Orca, who chased and eventually knocked Richard Harris' brain all over an Arctic glacier, because the latter killed his pregnant mate. No idea what movie I am referencing? Can’t say I blame ya). Animals retaliate but do not dwell on the feelings of resentment, the sense that an injustice was done to them, the way humans do. An ant colony fights back when it is invaded by other colonies. However, when they lose a territorial war, they either get exterminated or absorbed into the winning side's community: there are no “buts” about the outcome. I doubt a soldier ant goes after the queen ant of the invading colony in a suicide mission of avenging her own queen, or deaths of her sister larvae.

Revenge, like betrayal, is a classic motif in the human art of storytelling. More intelligent and perceptive artists have attempted to address the precarious balance between the initial injustice and the act of revenge and explore the all-too-human resistance against forgiveness as well as the existential despair that often results from fulfilling the desire for revenge. Most Korean films avoid tackling the painful subject of forgiveness head-on, exceptions like Lee Chang-dong's profound Secret Sunshine (2007) notwithstanding. Moreover, Korean filmmakers seem rather uninterested in making the kind of pulp-ish revenge movies that on the most basic, primitive level make us root for the victim-turned-avenger: say, Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 (1981). But this appears due less to the recognition that revenge is a fundamentally flawed solution (the understanding that underlies Park Chan-wook's Revenge Trilogy, for one) than to the filmmaker's insistence in deploying revenge as a tool for political criticism.

A typical revenge plot in a Korean film is triggered by the glaring incapacity and indifference of the legal establishment and the police toward redressing a grievance: a serial killer either evades capture until the statute of limitations closes in, or is released on a technicality: a rapist of a little girl is protected by his wealthy parents and is never prosecuted: and so on. Given the acknowledgement that women and children constitute unprivileged groups in Korean society (despite occasional vicious discursive campaigns leveled at them in the internet), a subgenre of “women’s revenge films” has come into being in recent years, with the children cast in the role of victims and mothers brought in as revenge-seekers.

For me at least, the profound distrust of the rule of law displayed in these revenge-themed films – money and personal connection always override the law in the Korean society, according to them – coupled with their distressingly complacent, even anti-feminist views of women, make these “women’s revenge films” difficult to be either enjoyed as conventional thrillers or appreciated as meaningful explorations of the actual human condition. Many of them possess the air of an arrogant male intellectual pretending to be sympathetic with the plight of women, and then preaching to the women the importance of familial love, all the while underhandedly consolidating the stultifying hold of the patriarchy by putting “mothers” in their proper “stations.”

This tendency does not go away even when a woman sits in the directorial chair. Bang Eun-jin's Princess Aurora (2005) comes perhaps closest to dishing out the pulp thrills of a vigilante woman fighting against a corrupt, money-dominated system, except that it turns into a dreary position paper about the ills of the Korean legal system (hatefully manipulated by the US-educated, wine-sipping, upper-crust lawyers) in the latter half. Ultimately, it ends up as the Korean equivalent of right-wing, anti-liberal fantasy made in the United States.

Seven Days (dir. Won Shin-yeon, 2007) and Bystanders (dir. Im Gyung-soo, 2005), both starring Kim Yun-jin, are a slick, fast-paced thriller and a well-made but lugubrious meditation on the horrors of classroom ostracism, respectively: they push their “mother” characters right into the domain of complete insanity or overwhelming, self-destructive guilt, in order to maximize the melodramatic effect. The latter film is particularly odious, as the mother character, superbly essayed by Kim, is ultimately blamed for her inability to protect her victim-child from bullies (she commits suicide as a self-punishment). Both films reduce the scope of the problems to personal tragedies of the mothers who could not do well by their children, thereby granting an absolute primacy to the ideologically constructed “family,” (and, truth be told, the supremacy of a male child’s position in such a family) over a woman’s subjectivity or agency.

Why, then, is Jang Chul-soo’s Bedevilled (2010) so different from these examples and, in my view, the model case we have of a Korean “women’s revenge film?” At first glance the film appears to be nothing more than a moderately exotic slasher-horror in which a perennially put-upon farming woman goes berserk with a sickle and a hammer (an interesting choice of weaponry, wouldn’t you say?) and massacres her tormentors. Yet Bedevilled accomplishes what few revenge-themed films have done, that is, to dig deeper beneath the self-satisfied, intellectual critique of Korean society and get at the unarticulated, subaltern ressentiment of the Korean women who have been exploited throughout the entirety of modern Korean cultural history.

During one of our conversations, Professor An Jin-soo pointed out that he had encountered few Korean films, if ever, from the ‘70s and ‘80s that did not include a scene in which a woman is slapped in the face or otherwise violently manhandled by a man. Indeed, mainstream modern Korean literature or cinema is full of stories in which a woman is subjected to rape, physical abuse and insults, sometimes culminating in a complete negation of her most basic right as a human being. Yet, in these stories, the women simply accept and tolerate all this suffering: indeed, it is one of the key devices of Korean melodrama that they get misunderstood, abused, maimed and killed in the name of love (read: male desire).

Bedevilled’s protagonist, Kim Bok-nam, completely overturns these expectations. Bok-nam, without invoking the usual melodramatic affect, goes after and kills all her tormentors with the gusto of a horror film monster. Any “intellectual” who stands in her path and tries to preach how her abject condition is all society’s fault would have his skull bashed open like a ripe watermelon. The disconcertingly primeval quality of the violence perpetrated by Bok-nam is itself subversive: in an isolated island environment, she is one of the few laborers and is capable of wielding her agricultural tools as deadly weapons. She transforms the yoke of her indentured servant-hood into instruments of revenge. Moreover, Bok-nam’s city-dwelling female friend, Hae-won, is neither set up as an Uncle Tom figure subservient to patriarchal oppression nor as a “politically active intellectual” feeding the former the ideology of liberation through social criticism. Even though Hae-won ultimately causes Bok-nam’s destruction at the film’s denouement, their relationship is nonetheless confirmed to be rooted in a form of female solidarity, tinged with nostalgic evocation of childhood feelings of (same-sex) love.

Director Jang hints at the mythical character of Bok-nam by drawing comparisons with classic literary sources: for instance, the scene in which she unnervingly seems to hear “voices” under the glaring sun while working in a potato field recalls a similar setting in Kim Tong-in’s classic short story “Potatoes” (1925), that also ends with the death of its young female protagonist, Bok-nyeo. However, in the story, Bok-nyeo is “punished” in a typical manner when she begins to use her body as an economic resource to claim a higher status: her subjectivity is undermined when her motivation for murderous desire turns out to be jealousy against another “kept woman.” It may not be so farfetched to consider Bok-nam (“Bok-nam” literally means “Blessed Man,” while “Bok-nyeo” means “Blessed Woman”) as a counterpoint of sorts to the archetype of the “(modern) dominated woman” found in Kim’s story.

The uniqueness of Bedevilled becomes more obvious when we compare it to the confusingly titled Azooma (dir. Lee Jin-seung, 2012: technically, it should be Ajoom-ma, a Korean word for “Auntie,” but never mind), another revenge-fantasy heavily drawing on the conventions of the horror genre in its second half. The latter opts to interminably dwell on the incompetence and indifference of the police and the protagonist’s craven doctor husband, while putting a large portion of its energy into obsessively depicting the rapist’s creepy modus operandi. The climactic torture and murder sequence (of the rapist in the hands of the mother figure, using her dental-school training) merely feels obnoxious rather than cathartic (not to mention hypocritical: the film wholeheartedly endorses the protagonist hiring professional thugs to kidnap the rapist. What if someone paid these thugs to rape a young girl?).

When Bok-nam confronts the possibility that her husband has been sexually abusing their daughter, her invocation of the word “f*ck” (“I… I think my husband is f*cking my daughter”) provokes a horrified reaction from Hae-won. Bedevilled does not have to show us the extended “suffering” of the mother resulting from her child’s misfortune or methodical activities of a child rapist to convince us that what the sexual aggressor has done is evil. The focus is instead on how Bok-nam’s stark characterization of the situation as “my husband is f*cking my child” creates a dissonance with the socially and legally accepted conception of such behavior among the “normal (bourgeois)” Koreans. In a lesser revenge thriller like Azooma, the rapist is evil because he made the protagonist wail, cry and suffer throughout the movie: in Bedevilled, we are forced to confront the act of child sexual abuse as it is, like an open wound, bereft of the melodramatic device that “brings justice” to the perpetrators (so that we can all selectively forget that these crimes are routinely committed by loving fathers and upstanding citizens as well, not just by creepy pedophiles).

I believe that Bedevilled is one of the best examples illustrating how a superficial fidelity to genre conventions – in this case those of a slasher-horror, one of the least respected film genres – could help filmmakers dismantle the ideological apparatuses that serve as alibis for the kind of intellectual critique leading to the reaffirmation of the patriarchal order it is supposedly criticizing. It is not only a great horror thriller, but also the most profound and unnerving challenge to the Korean patriarchal mentality that continues to underlie even the self-consciously “progressive” mainstream films.

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  1. I watch the film and it seemed to me her best friend was society. A society that stands by and watches all the atrocities and says why cant you fix it yourself? Do not bother me I'm too busy being (afraid) as long as it doesn't personally touch my world.

  2. I've watched a lot of Korean films over the past year. Often I forget them almost immediately because just like films in the west some are better than others. This is one unforgettable film.