Korean horror may be more or less a mixed bag these days, but when it comes to the thriller genre, Korean cinema have yet to miss a beat. First-time director Jang Cheol-Soo’s (who had assisted Kim Ki-Duk with many projects) film “Hangul: Kim Bok-Nam Salinsageonui Jeonmal” (translated; “The Whole Story of the Bok-Nam Murder Case“) was a runaway hit in South Korea, and now has been released in the U.S. with the title “Bedevilled” after being selected as an official selection in the Cannes Film Festival. Bloody, brutal, sadistic and gory, the film won many international film awards including best actress for Seo Young-Hee and best new director.
Hae-won (Ji Sung-Won) is a middle-ranked financial officer in a Seoul bank. She is also a little selfish, intense and is eventually brought down by stress and the misogynistic environment she is surrounded in the banking world. Frustrated and desperate, Hae-Won takes up an offer to go vacation and visit her old friend, Bok-Nam (Seo Young-Hee) who still lives in Moo-Do island, where Hae-Won spent her childhood. Warmly welcomed by Bok-Nam, despite the fact that her letters to Hae-Won had all been ignored, Hae-Won soon discovers how life in the island had remained the same, and yet very different since it is now only populated by a handful of people. Bok-Nam’s life is filled with hardship, as she is treated more like a slave than a wife to her husband, Man-Jong (Park Jong-Hak). Bok-Nam‘s daughter, Yeon-Hee is all that keeps her going and to endure her pain. Now, Hae-Won is about to bear witness to something that will change her life forever…
“Bedevilled” is a difficult movie to watch. I have to admit, that the last time I felt this genuine unease in viewing a film was the time that I saw “The Girl Next Door” and “I Spit on Your Grave” as the direction and the script very vividly envisions the pain, fear and hopelessness in Bok-Nam’s situation. I am not certain why most Korean films these days appear to portray a lot of misogynistic behavior, I suppose it is a way to condemn such actions and how men in some areas of the world seem to cling to the belief that they should have the ‘power’ and the females around them allow such false belief.
The screenplay builds on the development of Bok-Nam’s situation and to reveal the layers of her character which was exquisitely played by Seo Young-Hee. The actress had no issues carrying the film’s burden. It was easy to feel the emotions behind each scene, I found that despite I knew that the film wasn’t going to end well, I was quickly immersed in the plot. I found myself rooting for Bok-Nam all the way, and that I slowly began to despise the people around her who would allow such abuse to take place. The viewer can quickly assert that the people abusing Bok-Nam would soon get her due, it was all a matter when and how. The film also gets props for building the groundwork very carefully, the reasons why Bok-Nam endured such treatment and why Man-Jong treated her with such abuse was believable, as revealed by its narrative. The direction clearly wanted to share a sense of injustice being done here, as it becomes an expression as to how island life can be very different to ‘city life’. It may carry the staple of subtle brainwashing and that Bok-Nam knew nothing else (shown by her surprise that there are actually ‘kind’ people), but It helped in the development of its script.
Set by a solid groundwork and the established emotions, the film had no difficulty in its shift in tone as the film becomes a brutal and sadistic display of violence as Bok-Nam finally begins to stand up for herself. The film does not hold back on the graphic imagery that I am sure those who are squeamish can find themselves looking away. Seo Young-Hee is fantastic as the meek, naïve and caring mother who then transforms into a furious, murderous female out for blood. The death/murder scenes were set up quite well, and it was easy to buy into the massacre being seen in the film. The film has a strong display of sex, nudity and violence towards women, so I can see some people having issues in watching it.
Seo Young-Hee truly became her character as she manages to enthrall and engage me with her performance. I felt pity, anger and then rejoice as the people who had done her wrong get their due. Her performance was also aided by the performance of the supporting characters led by Park Jong-Hak. Park was a man that anyone could easily hate, he was the kind of man who was imbalanced, who just took everything out on Bok-Nam. Ji-Sung-Won was decent in her performance, but I felt that she did not sell her character as much as the other performers. There were times that I felt that her role was unnecessary, that is until secrets become revealed that gave more impact to its narrative.
I really enjoyed the structure of the film, but as competent the direction was and how the groundwork impressed me, I felt that the quality of the final act did not match the quality of the rest of the film. I felt that it somehow fell to the trappings of a modern slasher, and it felt rushed in several areas. There were some lingering plot holes (such as what happened to the Seoul hooker) and a transitional issue between the end of the 2nd act to the last act that needed a slight suspension of disbelief. However, despite these minor qualms in the script, I thought that I was completely immersed by the film.
“Bedevilled” is one Korean thriller that reminded me why I got into the Korean “new wave” some years ago. It was methodical, bold and definitely nihilistic, but it does not allow itself to wallow in its displays of violence alone. It had a good laid-out plot and impressive performances. Debuting director Jang Cheol-Soo may have small ‘growing pains’ in his art, but I am definitely curious what he can come up with next.
Strongly (but Timidly) Recommended! [4+ Out of 5 Stars]
The film’s nature may prove to be not for everyone.
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