It is always interesting when folks see a film and call it ‘hard to classify’. Such was some of the pre-buzz I had heard about Jang Chul-soo’s debut film Bedevilled. Of course, not all films present themselves as classifiable genre flicks. But while some do so awkwardly (Cowboys and Aliens, anyone?), others deliberately skirt with and deconstruct genre conventions, and Bedevilled certainly does that. In fact, while the title resonates throughout the plot, it could be seen to be a challenge to audiences too.
Bedevilled starts with Hae-won (Ji Sung-Won), an immaculately presented woman, who has witnessed an assault on another woman on the neon lit streets of Seoul. We don’t initially see her witnessing this, just her side window rolling up as she ignores the woman’s cries for help. We see it from her viewpoint, one of many deliberately framed provocations to the viewer. Then a cut to a typically antiseptic office, where Hae-won is busy refusing an elderly woman’s need for a loan. The cut between the face of each woman is telling: Hae-won pale, coiffured, and emotionless, the other weathered, dark, and sad.
Hae-won won’t act as a witness against the male perpetrators of the assault either, but she is clearly under pressure that not even a refreshing can of Guinness (a very odd piece of product placement) can alleviate. She snaps at her work, slapping a colleague, and is ordered to take time off. And that she does, travelling over sea to a seemingly idyllic island she spent her childhood on.
Much like Psycho, from this point on it is clear that, while the themes of the first part of this film are continued and explored, the focus on Hae-won is rather a misdirection. For here on the island of Moo-do she reunites with her childhood friend Bok-nam (Seo Young-Hee). There is an immediate evocation in Bok-nam’s appearance with that of the woman in need of the loan. Bok-nam is tanned, scruffy, emotive.
There is a sub-genre in horror film where a city-based protagonist travels to a seemingly idyllic countryside and then finds themself out of place, confronted by scenarios where urban ideas of law and order no longer apply, and where violence runs amok. Think The Wicker Man or any number of slasher flicks. Bedevilled muddies that genre quite quickly. It is the island dweller Bok-nam who appears as the initial victim of endless rounds of abuse, psychological and physical. Hae-won may or may not be the witness to all of it, but, unlike the city victims of countrified terrors, she becomes complicit in the violence by her indifference.
And so Bok-nam faces abuse by her husband Man-jong (Park Jung-Hak), his vile brother, and, most curiously, by the elderly women on the island, who, rather than sympathising with her plight, see her as necessary to their own laziness and interests, turning a blind eye, and even encouraging the abuse. There are, then, none of the usual easy horror tropes of men vs women, city vs country. All are complicit in some way to misogyny and prop up the island’s twisted patriarchy. Typically in such films, the city dweller is ‘cultured’: here Hae-won dresses in flowing white, practices yoga (which Bok-nam, all earthy and awkward, cannot imitate), is innately musical. But ‘cultured’ is not, as it typically is, positioned in contrast to the ruggedness of the countryscape and country farming folk. And nor is ‘culture’ the thing we are meant to feel sympathy with.
Instead Hae-won is a too asexual and distant a representative of the urban (a comment in itself), and our sympathies instead lie with Bok-nam. So when, at about the two-thirds mark, she finally breaks and goes on a rampage of murder, the film hits us with the ambiguity of our own sympathies. Her violence is almost the only solution she has, and its uncultured nature – she kills with a very basic and unsophisticated scythe – appears almost celebratory. Almost. But each killing is bereft of the usual signifiers of tense music and foreboding.
Bedevilled then makes a startling reveal of just how complicit and indifferent Hae-won has been, pointing to the particular and tragic incident that triggers Bok-nam’s breakdown. Revenge then, must also be taken on Hae-won, and here the film gets clever and tricksy. Ambiguous it is: we grasp for the usual trope where a main character might just have learnt something, grown, enough for them to escape. But nothing is clear in this part of the film where Bok-nam has taken on some of the outward trappings of Hae-won, and whatever justifiable celebration the audience might have felt for Bok-nam’s revenge, here the film appears to intentionally muddle our sympathies.
Then the film turns one final time, returning to a moody coda which actually does indicate some kind of redemption, before settling on a final startling image that ties the idea of a woman on her back to the very shape of the island, and emphasising just how isolated the characters remain from each other. No person is an island, indeed.
It’s the trick, really. Bedevilled is hard watching. Even when it appears to just buy into every horror slasher trope there is, the politics of gender, emotion, family, and forgiveness, are played out. Some reviews talk about the killing spree part of the film as being the second half — although, of the two hour running time, it only takes up less than a half hour. Bedevilled has often been called a ‘slow burner’, but this section to me, seemed only a punctuation, an expected one at that and one that underlines the ideas of dominance and submission, the blurring of masculine and feminine, affluence and poverty, town and country, that run throughout.
Some final things. The film is beautifully shot. The fact that much takes place in broad daylight and in such gorgeous and simple surrounds rackets up the film’s tensions. Performances are terrific, especially Seo Young-Hee, brimming with emotional force. Some edits are odd though, especially towards the films final moments.
But although Bedevilled is tough going, especially throughout the protracted scenes of Bok-nam’s humilations, the film holds you. This is not a horror film, but a somber, sad film that runs intelligently and unexpectedly with some powerful themes, and which ultimately really begs for people to connect, be responsible, to be loving.