Bedevilled (2010, Jang Cheol-soo) is a cinematically captivating film that tells its horrific story of torment with narrative flare. It's a tricky film to perfectly place within a particular genre but I believe it best fits into a drama-thriller category rather than strictly horror. As one of my favourite Korean films of the past year, Bedevilled is as intense as it is fascinating.
Hae-won (Ji Seong-won) is an emotionally detached bank worker in Seoul who seems to lack any real sense of empathy that might result in her taking action to help another. She is selfish, unkind, and her inability to assist others borders on the sociopathic. Throughout the film Hae-won is unwilling to remedy situations that would require relatively little of her. She refuses to help an older woman with a bank loan, refuses to identify a rape victim's assailants, and is unwilling to acknowledge her childhood friend's desperate cries for help. This is a woman who disparages her social existence. After being forced to take a leave of absence from work, she escapes to an island she frequented as a child to visit her grandfather.
On the island is a small, isolated community, as well as Hae-won's childhood companion Kim Bok-nam (Seo Yeong-hee). Kim has lived on the island her whole life and lives with her abusive husband Man-jong (Park Jeong-hak), and her daughter Yeon-hee (Lee Ji-eun-I). She eagerly greets Kim and is truly excited about the chance to reconnect with an old childhood friend. Hae-won spent time on the island in her youth but went to school in Seoul. Kim, on the other hand, has never left the confinement of the island and marvels at Hae-won's beautiful pale skin, her lavish attire, and seemingly successful life in the big city.
The other residents of the island are less welcoming, they are unimpressed with Hae-won and her visit to the island. This matriarchy is lead by a callous grandmother (Baek Soo-ryeon) and her trio of obedient elders. This cold and domineering woman barks orders and casts harsh judgments on Kim. In addition to the grandmothers, there are Bok-man's brothers and an impassive and seemingly oblivious old grandfather.
It quickly becomes clear that life on the island for Kim is a horrific one. Her husband is emotionally, psychologically, and physically abusive to her and his brothers are no better. He regularly assaults her and even openly has sex with prostitutes while she waits outside and listens. The elders on the island are fully aware of this and are quick to shun her for feeling anything less than gratitude towards him. According to them, he was selfless to take her and her bastard child in. She is at the bottom of this dysfunctional community and she desperately wants out, hoping that Hae-won will make good on her childhood promise of one day taking her to Seoul.
The story then follows Kim and her horrendous existence on the island. Hae-won witnesses some of Kim's tragedy but remains true to her action-less characterisation. Desperate and helpless Kim is pushed to the edge and beyond. Having been abandoned by her old friend and with nowhere else to turn she snaps. The torment she has endured consumes her and she takes revenge on the people she deems responsible for her tormented reality.
Bedevilled is excellent film that tells its story with such cinematic sensibility that it's hard not to become engaged in the spectacle. The film's cinematography is well crafted, deliberate and meaningful. Shots contain great compositional tension and flow that really complements each scene. Another film technique that is beautifully showcased in Bedevilled is the use of motifs. Reoccurring ideas and themes build tension and, when transplanted with the inevitability of the story itself, make for thrilling cinema. This film is artfully constructed with thematic intent beyond the story's linear progression.
I have read that some viewers feel the characters in Bedevilled are one-dimensional and almost cartoon-like. It's not that I completely disagree with them; it is just that I disagree with the negative connotations of such a statement in this film. Characters are not as fleshed-out as they could be, but I feel that this an intentional choice in order reinforce some of the film's themes. Bedevilled shows us a world in which change is a terribly difficult thing to undertake in one's life. The characters are presented exactly as they should be, the viewer need not ask the question "why are they", but rather "what now for them".
Bedevilled is a superbly made film that successfully delivers its story with great cinematic tension and great characterisations. It's definitely one of my favourite Korean films. It's a thrilling and thought-provoking journey into madness and self-awakening.
-Christopher J. Wheeler
Agree? Dissagree? Please feel free to comment on this review. Discussions are welcomed!