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“Bedevilled” emerged as one of the most hard hitting and accomplished films from Korea in 2010, a shocking and unforgettable revenge thriller starring actress Seo Young Hee (“The Chaser”) as a woman pushed too far. The film marked the debut feature of Jang Cheol Su, who previously worked as an assistant to angry auteur Kim Ki Duk, and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it deals in no-holds barred fashion with themes of abuse, gender politics, and of course, murder. Unusually for an uncompromising and violent outing, the film was hailed by critics around the world, premiering at the International Critic’s Week at Cannes 2010 and going on to win a number of prizes and nominations for Jang Cheol Su and Seo Young Hee.
The film kicks off with cold Seoul career woman Hae Won (Ji Seong Won, also in “Harmony”) having a dreadful day, witnessing the brutal beating of a young woman and being pushed over the edge by the pleadings of an old woman at the bank where she works. Told by her boss in no uncertain terms to take a break, she heads to remote Moo Do Island where she grew up and where her friend Bok Nam (Seo Young Hee) still lives, whose letters she has been simply throwing unopened in the trash. She soon discovers that Bok Nam has been suffering horrific abuse at the hands of her husband and his brutish brother, not to mention being exploited by the handful of cruel old women who make up the rest of the island’s tiny population. After it becomes clear that Hae won is unlikely to help, Bok Nam grabs her young daughter and tries to flee, though is soon recaptured, the poor child dying in the process. Finally snapping, the unhinged woman grabs a sickle and takes bloody revenge.
“Bedevilled” is a far more morally complex and challenging film than this synopsis might suggest, and is by no means a straightforward revenge thriller in the traditional sense. Similarly, despite its setting, the film isn’t an exercise in exploitative backwoods fear, nor is it an overtly feminist rant, with Seoul being portrayed as a bleak place full of random violence, and with the island being run by a monstrous matriarchy whose members are every bit as bad as Bok Nam’s male abusers, reinforcing oppression and ignorance. The film also eschews a typical revenge narrative or indeed the usual patterns of victims and abusers as protagonists, beginning with Hae Won as the main character, and later shifting to Bok Nam, only for things to be turned on their head when she turns devilish aggressor.
With Bok Nam being the only sympathetic character, director Jang immediately forces the viewer to face the full horror of her existence, pulling no punches in his depictions of her being beaten around, sexually abused and mistreated in every way possible, physically and emotionally. However, at the same time, whilst the blame clearly lies with the island’s inhabitants and perhaps to a greater extent to Hae Won, it is also suggested that the apathy and acceptance that she has fallen into make her to a degree complicit in her fate. It’s this kind of complexity and painful humanity which really marks “Bedevilled” as such an accomplished work, and Seo Young Hee’s multi-layered performance gives her role the substance it needs, being one of the best and bravest from an actress anywhere in 2010. Her transformation from victim to killer is wholly believable, never falling back on either the usual damsel in distress or wide eyed lunatic riffs, and as a result the viewer is dragged along with her on what proves to be a truly devastating journey.
While the brutal power struggle and battle between the sexes at the heart of the film, characterised almost entirely by abuse and violence (summed up in stunning fashion in a disturbing scene where Bok Nam fellates a knife), is certainly reminiscent of Kim Ki Duk’s works, Jang goes for a more gripping narrative approach, melding his themes with the story rather than allowing them full reign. The film is incredibly tense throughout, with the threat of violence ever present, playing off neatly against the atmospheric rural idyll of the setting. The omnipresent air of brutality is so effective that when the film switches to Bok Nam whittling down the inhabitants of the island it never misses a beat, with her actions seeming logical and inevitable. After being terrifyingly violent for the first hour in terms of domestic and sexual abuse, the film later becomes intensely gruesome once she goes on her sickle rampage, with some spectacular scenes of throat slitting and worse. However, these are not played for kicks in the traditional slasher film manner, and work well to underline Bok Nam’s decent into homicidal monstrousness, putting the viewer in the difficult position of not knowing whether to root for her or not.
“Bedevilled” really is one of the toughest and most powerful films from Korea in recent years, and is more than deserving of its praise. Anchored by a stunning performance from the talented Seo Young Hee, it stands as a must-see for anyone brave enough to run its emotionally draining gauntlet.
Chul-soo Yang (director) / Kwang-young Choi (screenplay)
CAST: Yeong-hie Seo … Kim Bok-nam
Seong-won Ji … Hae-won
Min-ho Hwang … Dodger
Ji-eun-i Lee … Kim Yeon-hee
Jeong-hak Park … Man-jong