Reviewed by James A. Janisse
Bedevilled is the slow-cooking 2010 directorial debut by Jang Chul-Soo, a well-built thriller that evolves from an oppression piece to a graphic revenge tale. The film and its pair of lead actresses have won a number of awards, and deservedly so. Bedevilled is 115 minutes of poignant struggle and captivating carnage.
The story is set in motion through Hae-won, a business woman from Seoul who’s forced to take a vacation after a stressful day leads her to slap a coworker down. She visits the rural island where she grew up to re-connect with an obsessive childhood friend. The friend, Kim Bok-Nam, is one of less than a dozen inhabitants that make up the island’s disconnected society. The focus then shifts to Bok-Nam and her abusive marriage before the film’s crazy midpoint sets off a grotesque killing spree.
Before we get a glimpse of Hae-won, a female pedestrian gets sexually assaulted in the film’s opening scene. Hae-won witnesses the attack but remains silent at a police line-up, setting up themes of violence against women and inaction against it. Sometimes heavy-handed, the abuse that Bok-Nam experiences at the hands of her husband and the older women on the island is nevertheless poignant and perfectly set, taking place on an isolated island where even a washing room is considered impressive. Hae-won, played by Ji Seong-won, is a perfect audience surrogate, a modern city woman thrown into this regressive rural island.
Despite constant put-downs, beatings, and the fact that her husband has sex with a prostitute openly and in front of her, Bok-Nam takes all of the abuse leveled at her with a strong back and an unceasing wide-eyed wonder of Hae-won’s life in Seoul. Though she deals with her own horrible treatment, she still wants the best for her young daughter – so when she finds out that the girl is being raped by her husband, she tries to escape. Her attempt fails and the ensuing tragedy causes her to snap and start killing her oppressors in the most brutal ways possible.
Bok-Nam starts with the enablers, a cartel of old women who reinforce very traditional gender roles and allow her husband’s abuse to go on unchallenged. After hacking and slashing them with harvesting tools, she turns on her husband and his brother, at which point the movie gets medieval in the form of a grotesque beheading and a straight-up evisceration. Sandwiched between these visceral murders is an intense scene where Bok-Nam fellates a knife before symbolically castrating her husband, biting his finger clear off.
It’s not until after her oppressors are dealt with that Bok-Nam turns on Hae-won, the film’s perspective shifting accordingly. No longer a justified vengeance streak, Bok-Nam’s attack on the woman she’s spent the movie worshipping comes off as surprising. Her bloodlust seems misguided and unfair as she lunges after the pretty and seemingly innocent Hae-won. But a slick twist, revealed in a flashback, shows that Hae-won isn’t as blameless as she first appears.
The fact that Hae-won prevails and puts Bok-Nam down may suggest that a patriarchal society can never be overcome as long as some women are accomplices to it, but the film does end with a lesson, as Hae-won is finally able to speak up against injustice and identify the perpetrators of the sexual assault she witnesses before.
Bedevilled is a riveting and intelligent film. A small but ridiculously talented cast lend legitimacy to scenes that aren’t afraid to get vividly violent. Able to make a statement while providing plenty of sex and gore, Jang Chul-Soo’s debut feature should please everyone who sees it, no matter what they look for in a film.
Video: Bedevilled is shot in crisp HD, though the image is sometimes a little bright, with the sky and some of the more luminescent colors getting washed out in many of the film’s outdoor daytime scenes. This visual decision is motivated by the role the sun plays in Bok-Nam’s transformation, but still, it’d be nice to see some more of the island’s verdant plant life. Overall, it looks great, the film’s aesthetics able to vary between the city setting and the rural landscapes with equal beauty.
Audio: 5.1 surround sound is mixed well and sounds good.
Extras / Special Features:
Behind the Scenes (13 minutes): This is just 13 minutes of footage shot on set as they were filming. There is no commentary or elaboration on the production that we’re seeing, just repeated takes of various scenes. Footage starts with the bathing scene between the women, shows more detail of the head-in-the-tree, and includes rehearsals of a fighting scene, revealing the mats and boxes used to cushion the actors’ falls. Unfortunately, unless you’re desperate for some behind the scenes footage, it’s not that interesting.
Trailer (2 minutes): The trailer sets up the film’s violent vengeance streak, saying in usual dramatic form that Bok-Nam is not dumb or crazy, just BEDEVILLED! My favorite part of the film was the slow-build up to her murder spree and the uncertainty in how she’d deal with her lot in life, but since this review spoils more than the trailer, I guess I can’t criticize it too much.