Release Date: 02nd September 2010 (South Korea)
Running Time: 115 mins.
Director: Jang Cheol-Su
Writer: Choi Kwan-Young
Starring: Seo Young-Hee, Ji Sung-Won, Park Jung-Hak, Baek Su-Ryeon, Lee Ji-Eun, Je-Min, Bae Sung-Woo, Jo Duk-Je
When I picked up Bedevilled I expected a slasher film. The cover has a blood-spattered glowering young woman holding a scythe in a forest. What I got was a horror film but one similar to Eden Lake and Straw Dogs. People pushed to the brink and forced into savagery.
Hye-Won (Ji Sung-Won) lives and works in Seoul. She is a cold and focussed individual and these character traits lead her into a fight with a co-worker. As a result of this her boss tells her to take a vacation. Stumped for ideas Hye-Won eventually goes to Moo-do island, a place where her grandfather lived and a place where she made friends with an island girl named Kim Bok-Nam. When Hye-Won arrives, Kim Bok-Nam (Seo Young-Hee) is overjoyed to see her. It is clear the locals are behind the times. Rather worryingly Kim Bok-Nam is treated like a serf by them but this mistreatment will have disastrous consequences for all involved.
When I was watching Bedevilled I felt the spectre of Kim Ki-Duk emerge on screen. He and the director of Bedevilled, Jang Cheol-Su, share concrete connections since Jang Cheol-Su was assistant-director on Kim Ki-Duk’s films Samaritan Girl and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring. Critics have accused Kim Ki-Duk in displaying misogyny in his films, especially Bad Guy and Samaritan Girl with their mix of sex and violence. What about Bedevilled?
Kim Ki-Duk’s influence is seen in the subject matter in Bedevilled as it features many, many uncomfortable moments of sexual abuse, violence, and hatred, a lot of it directed at women. However unlike Kim Ki-Duk’s films where I get the impression that the director is putting his mental anguish on the screen, Bedevilled is addressing issues and the cumulative effect of the action builds up to a bitter diatribe against misogyny and gender roles while offering a warning to women about how self-preservation risks making victims of others.
There are many moments when women are subjected to violence. The violence is graphic and brutal. That is bad in itself but what is worse is the sense that the violence is culturally accepted or at least easily ignored for many of the characters.
You’re an adult you should take care of yourself
The first character we are introduced to is Hye-Won. We do not see her for a while and instead we see the world of from her perspective as she is driving her car. The opening of the film takes place in night time Seoul and amidst the bright lights and bumper-to-bumper traffic. We witness two men being physically aggressive to a woman. The camera breaks off for a long shot as we see the woman pushed, prodded, and punched while passers-by try to avoid her. The camera cuts back to Hye-Won’s perspective as the woman leans into the open passenger side window begging for refuge. Hye-Won hears her pleas for help and rolls up the window leaving the woman to face the men abusing her.
Hye-Won is an ice queen to put it lightly (maybe cowardly would be better). Her behaviour and actions throughout the film paint a picture of an individual who is self-centred, emotionally closed off, aggressive, and condescending, especially when dealing with women. Comments Hye-Won makes during her altercation in the bank hint at the pressure she must feel in her workplace and Seoul but her detachment from her humanity has left her emotionally corroded. When she returns to the island there is a change in the lighting of the movie as it becomes warmer and Hye-Won seems to change character.
Compared to the cold and anonymous Seoul streets of the first part of the film the island seems like an idyllic place untouched by technology and modern life. It is filmed in warm tones with oranges from sunsets and warm balmy yellows of day time mixing with verdant greens of the foliage. The houses, some of which are being reclaimed by nature, are picturesque and traditional. There is a single telephone landline and no televisions. For city folks this would be the perfect get-away. For a horror film it is a great location for isolating characters.
Hye-Won’s first steps on the island are on a rocky shore in high heels. It seems more absent-minded than deliberate, the result of not having been back to the island and expecting modernity (or at least a pier she can step on!). Her appearance leads to adulation amongst the female inhabitants and open lust among the males. She is tall, graceful, and as pale as a porcelain doll. When compared to the tanned, stooped rough, gruff, and practical island inhabitants she is like a highly advanced alien visiting a lesser species.
Take a look at the locals and things are off. Men laze around chewing bozo, a plant with narcotic properties. They take sex and food whenever they want and they mistreat women of their generation while respecting older ones. The problem is that the older women on the island mollycoddle them while they themselves take on back-breaking work. Whenever Kim Bok-Nam complains about all of the work she does the old women offer the retort, “It’s nothing compared to man’s work”, which consists mostly of making make-shift repairs to buildings. The old women stand by as their gender role requires and allow the men to get away with anything. As a result of their position the men are allowed a degree of authority over other people and their bodies and this control has gone to their head. Traditional gender roles are strongly enforced by everybody, both men and women, and so we witness Kim Bok-Nam’s husband get away with mistreating her and comments like “females should not be educated as they run away”.
It is a familiar, if exaggerated scene from many different cultures where people hold certain notions as to what is appropriate behaviour and the worth of men and women but due to an event which is gradually revealed we see why these men are allowed to run rampant. Not that this excuses their behaviour. The film makes clear that the men on the island are Neanderthals plain and simple and the threat of violence and rape is ever present. It is not just a problem on the island either because as we see at the beginning of the film, men anywhere can hold these attitudes. In one scene Hye-Won herself is threatened with two men snarling “F*cking up a b*tch ain’t nothing” at her. It is similar to Kim Bok-Nam’s husband who growls “Even dogs and pigs learn if they get beaten” after abusing his wife.
As Hye-Won spends more time on the island she begins to unwind and alter her appearance but crucially she cannot break down her character traits and help a fellow woman, which leaves Kim Bok-Nam at risk from the dangers on the island.
I stared at the sun and it spoke to me
Kim Bok-Nam has been raised on the island and has little idea of the wider world and remains very childish but instead of being pitiful it is endearing as she comes out with lines like “Seoul people do laundry in rooms? How strange.” She is still a girl in many respects as she plays hop scotch, and playfully mimics Hey-Won’s yoga routine. Despite a brave cheerful façade she is in a miserable situation but the re-emergene of Hye-Won offers her new hope and rekindles feelings she harbours for Hye-Won. How deep these feelings go and what Hye-Won represents to her are gradually revealed by the narrative in a piecemeal fashion but it ultimately it adds to the horror of the film.
Kim Bok-Nam is the heart of the film, a truly sympathetic character with great strength. Once she is introduced the violence and tension grow as she engages in a life or death struggle to free herself from the people who surround her and defy what is expected of her in her social role. The film goes into detail in revealing the way women are devalued by men and oppressed by fellow females and it becomes increasingly sickening to watch. As a viewer my resentment built up for all of the characters involved except Kim Bok-Nam who I remained sympathetic to until the very bitter end. When the film enters horror territory it never becomes too ridiculous (although scenes set on the mainland prior to the final sequence are slightly over-cooked), as it aims to offer something of a sting in its tail and food for thought for the audience and Hye-Won.
If you are uncomfortable with violence then you might want to avoid this one. Women, children, and men are physically beaten punched, kicked, slapped, stabbed, bitten, hacked by blades and blood coats the island. It is delivered with a degree of panache and the action moves along at a great pace.
I have kept details as general as possible but the film’s Korean title and poster give the whole game away¹. The point is not to make a thriller or mystery but, through brutalising a character, making the audience think. it succeeds on this front primarily due to the excellent performance of Seo Young-Hee. I totally wanted to step onto that island and save her and she never lost my sympathy.
When the film finished I felt that it did a very good job at melding a somewhat political message with a mainstream horror movie. It challenged and explored gender roles and the values of an individual’s actions and the story was believable for the most part. The greatest compliment might be to say that amidst the gore and violence it made me uncomfortable as a male and aware of the hardships that many women around the world face. When was the last time a Hollywood horror movie intentionally did that?
Spoiler¹ The Korean title reads “Kim Bok-Nam Salinsageonui Jeonmai” which, when translated, is “The Whole Story of Kim Bok-Nam’s Murder Case”. This coupled with the poster (below) gives a lot of information away from the film but that does not really matter since the message is more important.