Bedevilled aka “Kim Bok-nam salinsageonui jeonmal” (2010, South Korea)
Dir: Chul-soo Yang
Stars: Yeong-hie Seo, Seong-won Ji. Min-ho Hwang, Min Je, Ji-eun-i Lee
Okay, I have exhumed some truly Fulci-zombi-style rotten films in the archive reviews iv been posting, so it’s high time to shine a light on another cinematic marvel you may have missed. Times are increasingly lean for Asian films at the UK box office, it seems nearly impossible to open a subtitled foreign language film from South East Asia that is not firmly in the prestige art-house bracket. Smaller companies like Arrow, and specialist distributors like Terracotta try their best, but the audience that was built up so carefully by Hamish Macalpine’s Tartan Films through the nineties and early naughties seems to have evaporated.
Now major Asian films like Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, and Bong Joon-ho’s astonishing Snowpiercer (a film mostly in English and starring Captain bloody America) get hovered up by the Weinsteins and treated like so much remaindered sausage meat. I first really became aware of this when Joon-ho’s The Mother was released in the UK. Probably the best film by one of Korea’s best directors, it played in competition in Cannes, and wasn’t even a genre film. And yet one of the best films released in the UK in 2010 – I’m speaking Oscar-bait good – played at the ICA for a week and was gone (it seemed).
In this difficult climate, a challenging genre film like Chul-soo Yang’s Bedevilled slipped out quietly on DVD and disappeared. But if you can handle the tough subject matter, this is really worth your time.
Hae-won (Seong-won Ji) is a single woman living in Seoul. She is focused on her banking career, is brittle and emotionally cold. She is receiving calls and letters that she ignores, we soon find out these are coming from a childhood friend living on the remote community of Moo-do Island where Hae-won grew up. Her single-minded careerism is derailed however after she becomes a witness to an attempted murder and then the subject of threats from the perpetrators. After she herself becomes the perpetrator of a nasty workplace-bullying incident, she’s forced her to take a leave of absence. With no friends, and no place else to go, Hae-won leaves the city to visit the remote island where she grew up.
Arriving she is enthusiastically greeted by childhood friend Bok-nam (Yeong-hie Seo), who is the source of the calls and letters. Hae-won has never replied, but Bok-nam is overjoyed to see her nonetheless. The focus of the story shifts to Bok-nam who we will discover is the subject of horrible domestic abuse at the hands of a vicious husband. The abuse appears to be not only condoned but also practically encouraged by the female elders of the island. Bok-nam’s husband is impotent with her, but happily accepts the services of prostitutes from the mainland callously having loud and violent sex while his wife sits on the porch outside. Bok-nam accepts her victim-hood to shield her daughter from similar treatment. However when the husband begins to show an unhealthy interest in the child, Bok-nam decides it is time to make their escape.
There is a point in this film where if it ended it would be not unlike the Korean version of a Bill Forsyth film; however Local Hero this is not. Over the course of 117 minutes Bedevilled moves its narrative chess pieces to set up a simply devastating second half endgame. The film moves from a tough domestic drama into revenge thriller – vengeance is a very strong theme in Korean cinema.
Recent revenge themed horror films from the US have used abuse as little more than an excuse to allow the audience to revel in violent retribution being dished out. The remake of I Spit on Your Grave springs to mind, a film that heaps the most appalling abuse on its lead character for the purpose of no more than justifying the audience’s vicarious pleasure in the violent revenge that follows. Bedevilled is a far richer experience and a film that is ultimately very humane. For touchstones amongst Western cinema turn to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 and Shane Meadow’s Dead Man’s Shoes. But none of these films has an emotional core as heartbreakingly sad. Horror fans attracted by the promise of violence will find there desires sated by the films close, but there is so much more here. This is a melodrama that gradually adds horror elements, leading to a shattering, tragic and ultimately supremely moving dénouement. The film’s final moments are a heart wrenching evocation of loss that reduced this hardened gore hound to a quivering lump of jelly.
As Bok-nam, Yeong-hie Seo delivers a brilliant performance of real range and depth. The film is visually lush, contrasting the beauty of nature with the ugliness and cruelty of which human beings are capable. When violence erupts it is shot in the golden-hour, the luminous first or last hour of daylight where a warm honey glow bathes the landscape. Chul-soo Yang’s direction may seem unhurried but his choice of shots and camera angles really drives home the psychological states of the characters.