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Introducing Jang Chul-soo’s BEDEVILLED before its first
showing at the current New York Asian Film Festival, co-founder Grady Hendrix promised it would offer
“catharsis!” for anyone in the audience having problems with their boss, etc.
That it certainly does, and in a way that genre fans will find more satisfying
than, say, HORRIBLE BOSSES, though the movie ultimately tries to have its
catharsis and eat it too.
Our protagonist is Hae-won (Ji Seong-won), a worker at a
Seoul bank who would no doubt win the approval of David Paymer’s supervisor
from DRAG ME TO HELL. She coldly turns down an old woman for a loan, and later
refuses to help a crime victim, with Jang (working from a script by Choi
Kwang-young) quickly and establishing her attitude as a product of big-city
life. An incident at work leads her boss to “suggest” a week’s vacation, and
Hae-won decides to take it on Moo-do Island, a remote place where she once
spent part of her youth, and where she has inherited a house from her
The setup, and Kim Gi-tae’s evocative cinematography, might
suggest that the island is a bucolic getaway from the soul-sapping pressures of
the city—but that idea is dashed pretty quickly. Upon arriving, Hae-won is
reunited with her childhood friend Bok-nam (Seo Yeong-hie), who’s been
dutifully taking care of that house—since Hae-won seems to be the only person
on the island who has ever treated her kindly. Bok-nam’s husband, Man-jong
(Park Jeong-hak), is a sexist brute who heaps physical and emotional abuse on
her—behavior not only condoned but encouraged by the old women who make up the
majority of the island’s tiny population. Along with Man-jong’s equally awful
brother, they make life hell for Bok-nam, and the only light in her life is her
young daughter Yeon-hee (Lee Ji-eun), whom she dreams of taking off the island
to escape their torment.
BEDEVILLED’s focus soon shifts off of Hae-won to settle on
Bok-nam and her awful situation, and while the bulk of the film can’t be called
horror in the traditional sense of the genre, it does become grueling to watch,
generating a growing feeling of outrage in the viewer. Seo, who can be seen
later this week at the Asian Fest in Na Hong-jin’s standout THE CHASER as the
victimized hooker (someone give this girl a lighthearted comedy role next!),
plays the victim heartbreakingly well, as she, Jang and Choi make it clear that
there’s no easy way out of her situation, and that she has no choice but to
endure her hardships. That helps the audience easily come by their sympathies
for her, since we don’t develop them through Hae-won’s eyes; just as she did on
the mainland, Hae-won chooses to turn away from the horrible deeds she
Something, of course, eventually has to give, and when the
mistreatment of Bok-nam boils over into an irrevocable and unforgivable act of
violence, the breaking point is reached and the bladed tools come out. As they
find their way into heads, necks and bodies, BEDEVILLED becomes an unrepentant
gorefest that pays off the tension that the previous hour-plus has built up.
Catharsis is indeed achieved, and regardless of your feelings about
eye-for-an-eye justice, it’s hard not to feel a sense of satisfaction as the
villains become victims. Yet the filmmakers also maintain a sense of tragedy
behind the bloodshed, which adds some depth to the scenes of carnage; even as
you cheer the deserved moments of retribution, you also get an underlying sense
of horror that things have come to this. It’s a nice balancing act that Jang
achieves even as he’s streaking the screen with squeam-inducing gore.
Which is why it’s so disappointing when, in the final act,
BEDEVILLED goes so wrongheaded. There’s a scene—a shot, really—that wraps up
the story with the perfect mix of resolution and ambiguity…and then the movie
continues into a lengthy setpiece that’s so wildly out of character from what
has come before, it feels like it has to be eventually revealed as a dream—and
even then would feel like a betrayal of the film’s tone and intentions. It
sends the film plunging from emotional character study to schlock horror, and
here, and in a few brief scenes that follow, Jang and Choi seem to have
forgotten what kind of movie they’re making and whose story they’re telling.
It’s a relief when they ultimately arrive at one last revelation that gets the
movie back on track and sounds a proper note of melancholy, though it’s a shame
its effect is muted by the misguided material that precedes it. BEDEVILLED
still warrants a strong recommendation for fans with strong constitutions—even
though, like many Korean thrillers, it’s about 15 minutes too long…and it has
never been clearer in a Korean thriller which 15 minutes need to come out.
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