American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Revenge is served raw and simple in "Bedevilled"(2010). The movie delivers exactly what it promises to us, but that is not for free. There are barbarous scenes that make you wince, and then there are bloody scenes that make you cringe, but this South Korean revenge thriller has gallons of emotions to spurt on the screen in its sad, wretched character. It carefully prepares its ground while seemingly following the typical formula of revenge movies featuring abused heroines. It continuously accumulates explosives beneath its surface as the plot progresses. And then, when the time comes, it explodes its anger magnificently like a harrowing bloody aria.
First, let me introduce Hae-won (Ji Seong-won), a frigid young lady who has led a typical lonely urban life in Seoul with her clean, sterile flat that looks like nothing more than a sleeping place. Shortly after having unpleasant experience as the key witness to some incident, she gets in another trouble at the bank where she works. She is quickly forced to have a vacation for an undetermined period, and, quite stressful due to these happenings, she decides to visit the remote island where she spent her childhood with her grandparents. This place looks ideal for having peace of mind - and also ideal for the Ten Little Indian game. Less populated than before, only 9 people live there when she returns.
As soon as she puts her foot on the island, Hae-won is eagerly greeted by her old childhood friend Bok-nam(Seo Yeong-hee), who has constantly tried to correspond with Hae-won for many years but gained very little from the girl whom she has adored since their parting. Bok-nam has always been faithful to their friendship none the less. She even has kept the empty house clean that belonged to Hae-won's grandparents while yearning for Hae-won's return every day. With such sincere hospitality from Bok-nam, Hae-won begins to relax in the place that is now vaguely familiar to her.
The Korean title of "Bedevilled" is "An Account of the Kim Bok-nam murder case", so the film shifts its focus from Hae-won to Bok-nam as the plot thicken. It turns out that there is a desperate motive behind Bok-nam's lively facade. The island community is not just conservative but maliciously conservative; Bok-nam has been mistreated like a labor/sex slave under its patriarchal savageness. Her hateful husband's part-time job is finding any excuse for beating her. Her lecherous brother-in-law does something inappropriate for the in-laws whenever he gets the chance to be alone with her. A stern matriarch, ironically a firm believer of good old time patriarchy, justifies Bok-nam's ordeals. The others in the island, mostly elder ladies, go along with the matriarch without any objection while exploiting Bok-nam's labor every day. Bok-nam's only small consolation is her daughter, but this innocent young girl begins to realize her potential as daddy's little girl - she will follow her mother's footsteps someday. As an uneducated woman who has spent her whole life in the island, Bok-nam's only hope is her friend now. She asks Hae-won for help. And she tries another escape.
From what I described to you, you probably have a pretty good idea of what will happen as a consequence. A heartbreaking tragedy happens. An infuriating situation is unfolded. Some time later, the sun scorchingly shines on the island as usual. Bok-nam maddeningly keeps working at the potato field, and something is..... snapped.
The director Jang Cheol-soo worked as an assistant director in Ki-Duk Kim's masterpiece "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring". In one interview, he said, "The only theory that he [Ki-Duk Kim] taught me was: 'To make the audiences can't take their eyes off the screen.'". His first feature-length movie clearly shows that he does not forget what he learned from his mentor. The barbaric moments in the film are depicted realistically as the parts of mundane daily life - they are all the more horrifying because of that approach. Even when the situation gets bloodier and more intense later in the second half, the movie does not lose its coolness while phlegmatically presenting devastatingly violent scenes one by one.
While keeping the violence on the screen under control, Jang Cheol-soo patiently builds tension in his small mean world while Hae-won starts to rediscover the ugliness of her hometown. The island is shown with unadorned natural beauty, and there are some tender moments between a few characters we come to care about while the subtle air of malevolence creeps in under the daylight. The isolated beautiful place and a desperate character inside it took me back to Ki-Duk Kim's "The Isle", whose extreme violence with fish hooks was jaw-droppingly memorable even to South Korean audiences. In case of "Bedevilled", a sickle and a whetstone come handy for the woman as mad as Sweeney Todd, and there are several carotid arteries to be punctuated - and lots of blood to be ejaculated.
It goes without saying that the movie has an uncomfortable aspect due to its brutal depiction of violence. Like many violent movies about revenge, it tries to make us accept its extreme violence as promised catharsis, and some critic criticized the film for the manipulative side behind its catharsis. It is surely manipulative and sometimes it is a little too blatant, but, I dare to say, it's a manipulation too good to be called manipulative. Above all, unlike vile exploitive movies such as "I Spit on Your Grave" (2010), the movie has the story and its characters and develops them amidst tons of savageries. We come to know that lots of anger, torments, and grievances have been accumulated in heroine's heart with thousand cuts. We get to know a desperate woman capable of deep hate as well as deep love. We do not demand a clear explanation for that eerie moment when she is finally detonated for we see that every possibility of love and hope has been completely and heartbreakingly obliterated in front of her. And we understand that she is driven to do something far more destructive than suicide as a result; she goes for the total annihilation with a vengeance.
And that simple black and white situation in the story turns out to be a little deeper than we thought at first. Throughout the movie, little things about its characters are mentioned or implied here and there. Male characters are thoroughly despicable and beastly (will the movie be as influential as "Deliverance"?), but they are interesting cases of self-hate. It is apparent that Bok-nam's husband and his brother are sick of their meaningless life stuck in the island. They know only reason why their detestable deeds are tolerated is that "the men are needed for hard work", as elder ladies say. I wonder whether they see their future from a mute, helpless old man taken care of by elder ladies, who seems to have a miserable story of his own in the past according to a brief conversation.
It is the testimony to the supporting actors' talents that their characters are presented like ordinary people we may meet in the conservative Korean rural villages (Baek Soo-Ryeon is standout as a heartless matriarch who might have been the same as Bok-nam in her past). Their performances are plain but nuanced while the presence of tightly-knitted community is conveyed well through them. They are not wild-eyed villains; they are weak, ugly human beings whom you can find in any places where the weak are mistreated in the name of traditions, religions, or whatever excuses they have. They are at a loss when they suddenly realize the table is completely turned. The way the abusive relationship between Bok-nam and her husband is worked nicely into the payoff scene later is another interesting point I leave for you.
If you have seen Seo Young-hee in "The Chaser", you definitely remember her terrifying ordeal with chisel and hammer in that gripping violent Korean thriller. Again, she fearlessly hurls herself into another horrific ordeal, and she propels the film with her memorably harrowing performance. Not only she convincingly transforms herself into a dowdy country woman (When her character tries to look sassy, she looks sassy in corny way), but also she displays the transformation of her character with equal conviction. From a miserable but plucky abused woman desperately clinging on the faint glimmer of hope at the start, she turns into the wrathful exterminating angel with a sickle, and then, in the climax, she comes off as a tragic monster as pitiful as the heroine of "Monster", another harrowing tale about a crushed woman driven to serial killings. There is small poignancy when, bewildered by the kindness from a stranger for the first time in a long time, she says, "A kind man exists in the world after all."
While Seo Yeong-hee has gotten lots of accolades, it should be mentioned that Ji Seong-won's solid performance as Hae-won is crucial because the relationship between these two women is the major driving force behind the narrative. Hae-won can help her friend, but she only patronizingly points out her friend's problems without any real support. She even turns blind eyes to her friend's situation and calls her a liar. And then she does a far worse thing to her friend when the villagers decide to impertinently accuse of Bok-nam for something she didn't commit.
This exactly mirrors her behaviors at the start. In the opening sequence, when her car passes by some incident on the streets, she callously disregards some woman in a possibly serious danger. Later, there is a chance to help the police, and there is a moment to feel indignant enough to do that, but she does not choose to help them for she wants to avoid troubles. It may be sort of the defensive mechanism of her psyche against male-dominated South Korean where it is quite burdensome to live as a woman due to those insensitive bullies. Ji Seong-won quietly implies something neurotic inside her character without giving any excuses for her character's behaviors. She can be cordial if she wants, but she is mostly cold and hostile to the people as weak as her, like when she heartlessly rejects the tearful plea from a old lady with mortgage problem at her bank (Yes, I could not help but think of Sam Raimi's recent horror movie "Drag Me to Hell" while watching this scene).
With a pointed social commentary on South Korean society, the movie also works as a familiar moral tale. It is wrong to crush the weak, and it is also wrong to remain silent to that when you can do the right thing. As the human beings with free will, Hae-won and others can choose to help Bok-nam, but they choose not to do that for their self-serving reasons. Regardless of whether they are indirectly or directly involved in Bok-nam's misery, the characters responsible for that are all guilty in the view of the film. All of them are unsparingly punished in the end, and Hae-won especially gets one hell of lesson for ignoring her friend's pain: "You're too unkind."
"Bedevilled" is one of the notable South Korean films of this year. It jolts us by pushing its heroine to lots of cruel situations, but it has a clear, straight attitude toward them. It is angry about them, and it is angry enough to give us several powerful scenes with emotional weights, sweep us with blood-soaked emotions, and conclude its story neatly with surprisingly serene sadness accompanied by a small lesson. After watching it, maybe you will be a little more caring to things happening around you.
Again, 2010 has been a good year for South Korean movies. To be frank with you, after enduring five truly awful movies(I cannot still forget that one of them has a naked, chained woman crawling with a dog collar on her neck) during first three months, I doubted whether South Korean movies had passed its peak. I even confided my doubt to David Bordwell and others at the Ebertfest in this April. But my thought fortunately turned out to be wrong right after April. In May, Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry", Im Sang-soo's "The Housemaid", and Sang-soo Hong's "Hahaha" were introduced at Cannes along with "Bedevilled". All of them were greeted with positive responses in here as well as Cannes and they are all in my 2010 list for the best South Korean movies. In addition, although we got considerable amount of bad movies, there have also been the other good Korean movies following them. It's not over yet, at least for now.
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