Details: (R18+), 112 mins , Korea, Republic of (South Korea),
Synopsis: Hae-won (Seong-won Ji) needs to get away from it all and finds herself drawn to Moo Island, a place where she once spent an idyllic childhood holiday. She soon discovers that the beautiful island paradise hides a darker, more grotesque society.
Fine horror film targets ills of Korean society.
Watch a few South Korean films and it’s hard not to pick up on an air of barely suppressed – and often openly expressed – violence. An undefinable malevolence speaks eloquently of apparent social tensions, particularly between the genders.
A casual attempt at interpretation would put that down to a terrible and still unresolved 20th century history: Japanese occupation, civil war, division of the country, dictatorship and the ever-present threat of a reopening of war with the North. But similar observations could be made about other countries, Germany especially, yet rarely do their national cinemas throb with the kind of torrid angst so often found at the heart of South Korea’s. (And I’m not just thinking of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, the most well-known example.)
Horror picture Bedevilled is set mostly on a picturesque island that naturally turns out to be not idyllic as it looks. Several things make the film stand out from the crowd, not least the feeling that its extreme events seem more than just a parade of the usual genre conventions, but seem to represent director Jang Cheol-Soo and writer Choi Kwang-young’s jab at Korean society.
In this playing out of the nation’s psychodrama, the dominant traits emerge as selfishness, conformism, masculine aggression and domination, and a female citizenry too scared to band together and address their situation. Add to this Jang’s obviously accomplished craft and storytelling skills and you have a potent brew.
Horror aficionados habitually accuse critics of snobbery for frequently sniffing at horror flicks. The cheesiness and clichéd predictability often found in the genre often deserves a withering reaction, but that’s not the case here. Jang and Choi have the smarts to delay the onslaught of the horror until almost the last possible moment, giving Bedevilled something in common with two of the most memorable horror flicks of the past decade, Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek and Miike Takashi’s Audition. It’s not quite in that class but it’s headed that way.
The film’s opening scenes play well as straight drama. Jang realises that for horror to have effect it needs a story that engages in its own right, a context to give meaning to the wickedness that this way comes. When a young woman is attacked by a gang on the streets of Seoul, attractive city office worker Hae-won (Ji Seong-won) declines to help the desperate woman and later fails to pick out the guilty parties at a police line-up. After a fight with another worker, Hae-won’s boss orders her to take a vacation. And so she alights from a small boat onto the prettily rustic island of Moo-do to stay with her old childhood friend, Bok-nam (Seo Yeong-hie), in a close-knit farming and fishing community.
At first the friend and her young daughter appear to live a peaceful existence, but when Bok-nam’s brute of a fisherman husband turns up, a darker picture emerges. After being insulted and viciously beaten, the poor woman is humiliated while her husband has loud, rough sex with a hooker only metres away, and there are hints the husband may be sexually abusing her daughter. Meanwhile, the community’s elderly women, including her husband’s sourpuss of a mother, gang up on her, denigrating her and generally piling on the misery.
The stage is set for an almighty bout of revenge, one soaked in blood and gore courtesy of the kind of scythe that presumably can be found on any farm in Korea.
Bedevilled suggests that Korean male brutality against women is a problem not only on remote islands with their backward communities, but also in the city. There is no escape. Or is there? Well, that would be telling.
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