As the South Korean revenge-thriller/horror genre continues to thrive on forceful plotting and white-knuckle violence, the directors and writers behind them almost appear to be competing to see who can upstage the other in brutality and dramatic button-pushing. Nasty moral implications become nastier, and the boundaries they're willing to push further expand in order to shock their audience into sensory submission. Director Jang Chul-soo's Bedevilled is the latest of those contenders, a thick piece of emotional provocation and moral ambiguity that plummets into desperation-driven violence, steeped in an abused mother's wrath as an underscore to burgeoning emotional catharsis. While occasionally overwrought and too thematically similar to its contemporaries, the brazen tragedy it depicts is heightened by a defining, disconcerting trait: what it says about the apathy and warped perception of onlookers who could've prevented it from happening. This is provocative, occasionally indulgent cinema that telegraphs a compelling and volatile blow once it reaches its nerve-racked destination.
The story starts in Seoul, where a bitter, unhelpful loans agent, Hae-won (Ji Seong-won) -- think of Christine from Drag Me To Hell with a sour disposition -- hits an emotional rift at her job while dealing with the turmoil of witnessing a crime. She decides to travel home for a vacation, presumably to disconnect and breathe the natural air of her old community. When she arrives, the situation isn't pleasant: her childhood friend, Bok-nam (Seo Young-Hee, The Chaser), who's been desperately pleading for her to come back, is surrounded by aggressive alpha-males and manipulative women stuck in a medieval mindset. Men raping and beating their wives (and other men's wives) and soliciting hookers is part of keeping the stronger sex satisfied in a self-sufficient farming community, and the women not only tolerate it, but encourage less-compliant women like Bok-nam to essentially "know their place". What happens when a relative outsider, someone who typically turns her shoulder to conflict, observes how the behavior takes a dark turn involving Bok-nam's daughter?
Bedevilled slowly transforms into a test of endurance -- on Bok-nam's sanity, and on the audience's threshold in witnessing the evils surrounding her destitute life. Harsh, often unsettling (but not overly graphic) images of sexual violation and abuse reinforce the unsettling atmosphere amid the false beauty of the island, the natural lush greens and quaint architecture of the houses offset by the frightened look on Bok-nam's face. Her sanity slowly dwindles before our eyes; beautifully intimate scenes of her trying to rekindle a friendship with Hae-won while they bathe and exercise together reflect the few glimmers of unhinged joy she has left, painstakingly disappearing as she's rejected and kicked around by everyone around her. It cuts deeper once the focus falls on her young daughter's safety, a witness to what's happening to her mother and accepting it as somewhat normal. This stunning, self-efficient village has a stranglehold on any woman who wishes for something more than subservience, and the measured danger Jang Chul-soo sustains around that dichotomy keeps anxiety at a high.
Bok-nam's gradual transformation to a darker mindset isn't subtle, but it's well-established and entrancing to observe in a tragic, hopeless sort of way. Bedevilled becomes this intentionally frustrating waiting game as we observe whether she'll snap or not -- or, let's face it, when and how the abused mother will snap -- under the conditions, and how Hae-won will factor into the situation. Sabotaged beehives, the screams of a prostitute, and lies from all angles create a sense of demoralization and disdain that, to be frank, tries too hard to inform her situation with a nihilistic viewpoint. Instead of violence that's tough to stomach, the film corners a helpless woman into an unbearable amount of physical and emotional abuse, with little purpose beyond rattling her cage and making her life appear ill-fated beyond recognition. An exasperated, strained performance Seo Young-Hee's pumps vital life into Bok-nam that justifies that angle, though; the unhinged pleas in her eyes and body language amidst Hae-won's cold emptiness slowly, and convincingly, metastasize into weathered, wild abandon.
But, man, does Bedevilled reward those who stick with Bok-nam's torment. Director Jang Chul-soo tries his damnedest to make the audience despise everyone around Bok-nam, and he reveals exactly why in the harrowing conclusion: a bluntly-telegraphed and poignant rush of blood, blades, and fear that dismantles the power structure of this deranged little island. Kim Ji-woon's I Saw the Devil teased a bit at what a scythe could do in the wrong hands; well, this flick exploits that curiosity. What it leaves in the balance is curiosity about redemption, and whether the stony, Guinness-guzzling Seoul woman from the beginning could find a way back to some semblance of humanity among the island's brutishness. It's here where Bedevilled discovers its complexity in a brusque, beautiful ending backed by recorder-flute notes; it doesn't have the mythological texture or moral fury of some of its contemporaries, but the psychosis existing between these childhood friends grasps its own gray-area contemplation about passed opportunities and justified retribution.
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