Judge Paul Pritchard has just cancelled his trip to Moo-do Island.
"I stared at the sun for long, and it spoke to me."
Nothing is more deadly than a woman seeking revenge.
Facts of the Case
Hae-won (Seong-won Ji) works at a large bank in Seoul, South Korea, where her abrasive attitude has caused tensions with colleagues. Following an altercation with an elderly customer, Hae-won is forced to take a vacation while the bank considers her position. With no real friends, Hae-won opts to take a trip to Moo-do island, where she grew up. Arriving on the remote island, Hae-won meets up with childhood best friend Kim Bok-Nam (Yeong-hie Seo), who at the age of thirty has never once been to the mainland. Hae-won is immediately taken aback by the rudeness of the other locals, particularly Dong-ho (Baek Su-ryun), who wastes no time in voicing her displeasure at Hae-won's arrival.
The one exception to this hostility is Bok-Nam, who is visibly overjoyed to be reunited with her old friend. As Hae-won spends more time on Moo-doo, she begins to learn the true ways of the island, and in particular the mistreatment of her old friend. Beginning with verbal attacks, it soon becomes clear that Bok-Nam is the victim of horrific abuse that has ignited a rage in her that will lead to bloody retribution.
South Korean thriller Bedevilled is not for the faint of heart. It's not so much that the sporadic scenes of violence are particularly brutal—truth is, they are quite tame by modern standards—but the almost ritualistic abuse that is handed out to Kim Bok-Nam, be it verbal, sexual, or physical, is delivered in such a frank and forthright manner that it provokes a strong emotional response from the viewer. Writer Kwang-young Choi's screenplay is smart enough to never risk either glamorizing or overselling the suffering Bok-Nam endures, while first-time director Chul-soo Jang keeps the camera firmly focused on the unfolding horror at all times—ensuring the viewer has no choice but to watch.
Yeong-hie Seo gives a mesmeric performance as the downtrodden Kim Bok-Nam. Despite what we are led to believe has been decades of abuse, Kim Bok-Nam fights to maintain a sunny demeanor in an attempt to both mask the realities of her existence from her young child, and to suppress as best she can the rage that simmers beneath the surface. Kim Bok-Nam has few confidants, with even her daughter showing little sympathy towards her in public. Perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that the older women on the island not only condone the abuse she suffers, but even go so far as to encourage it.
Though Kim Bok-Nam's husband is treated with a great deal of reverence by the elderly women of the island—being one of the few younger men living there—and despite their protestations that they need the menfolk to survive, the fact remains that the head of the island is Grandma Dong-ho (Baek Su-ryun). Dong-ho is a manipulative character, and her calculated approach sees her control the others whilst presenting herself as a frail old woman. One suspects her attitude is one that is born from years of abuse that she has herself endured, and rather than fight against it, she is instead doing her utmost to preserve the ways of her island as the influence of the mainland, and Seoul in particular threatens to destroy it. All credit to Baek Su-ryun, who goes all in as the vile Dong-ho. Her delivery is laced with venom, as is first evident when she sternly rebukes Kim Bok-Nam before reminding her that a woman is happiest when she has her husband's "dick in her mouth."
It could be argued that Bedevilled goes a step too far when it becomes evident that incest and pedophilia are also accepted practices on Moo-do island. However, by the time these revelations are made, the viewer is already fully invested in the story, and so they only serve to make one's blood boil further.
How sad, then, to report that the film completely falls apart in the second half. The moment Kim Bok-Nam enacts her revenge and begins her killing spree she changes from a tragic victim to a faceless killer. Why have us suffer with her for so long, if all we get in return is a succession of unspectacular bloodlettings as the payoff? The first hour is so emotionally draining that I can understand the desire to change direction somewhat, but Kwang-young Choi's previously stellar screenplay simply loses direction. Likewise, Chul-soo Jang's previously punchy direction becomes pedestrian and dull. It also becomes questionable as to what message, exactly, Bedevilled is trying to make? Do Choi and Jang truly believe the subjection of women is a bad thing? I ask as the moment Kim Bok-Nam empowers herself, she immediately loses any semblance of humanity, and must apparently be treated no better than the rapists who have tortured her for decades. It's a terrible thing to see, as what was once a thoughtful and emotional piece of filmmaking devolves into sub-I Spit On Your Grave fodder.
To say I was infuriated by the conclusion to Bedevilled is a huge understatement. For the film to have taken an unnecessary narrative leap is one thing, but to see the entire production—including the previously exemplary acting—slip into low-grade slasher territory is downright unforgivable. I found myself questioning the character of Hae-won, not so much her actions (which are certainly questionable), but rather what point she ultimately served. Though presented as the film's lead, Hae-won is merely a bystander, whose moral ambiguity is never fully addressed, and whose actions never once drive the narrative once she has arrived on the island. She serves only to provide an introduction and coda to the film, and nothing more. If I were stretching I might say that her role is designed to explore the way modern society has become disaffected, and no longer cares for the welfare of others. To do so would require the viewer to ignore several other characters whose actions fly in the face of this theory.
Well Go USA are releasing Bedevilled on DVD, and their disc's transfer is hard to fault, with the sharp, clean image capturing the natural beauty of Moo-do island. Detail levels are high, and colors are vibrant. Even darker scenes, of which there are several, retain a good deal of clarity. The soundtrack is equally impressive, with the natural sounds of the island helping flesh out the mix, while the dialogue remains crisp. Extras are a little disappointing. A short (13 minutes) "Behind The Scenes" featurette offers little more than footage of a few scenes being shot, while the only other extra is the film's theatrical trailer.
If I've come across as being hard on Bedevilled, then it is only because it offered so much promise. Though its subject matter dictates that it is never entertaining, the film's first hour is such a tight piece of filmmaking that I felt sure I was witnessing something special, only to see it end up a tired piece of genre filmmaking.
Guilty of dropping the ball.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
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