Stressed from city life and witnessing an horrific case of misogynistic violence, attractive thirty-something Hae-won (Hwang Geum-hee (황금희) is forced by her employer into taking vacation time to recuperate. At a loss what to do, Hae-won finally decides to acknowledge the requests from her oldest friend Bok-nam (Seo Yeong-hee (서영희) and return to her hometown, a small island off the coast of Korea that is home to a mostly-elderly farming community. Yet upon her arrival Hae-won quickly begins to notice the strange machinations of the villagers as well as the scandalous torture and abuse Bok-nam receives daily, until a further terrible tragedy occurs that has bloodcurdling ramifications for them all.
The story of Bedevilled – or more literally translated as The Whole Story of the Kim Bok-nam Murder Case – is one of those special cinematic events that occurs far too rarely in the film industry. The debut feature by director Jang Cheol-soo (who had previously assisted indie master Kim Ki-duk), with a meagre ₩700 million ($636,363) budget and no big named stars (reportedly Kim Hye-soo and Jeon Do-yeon both turned down roles), Bedevilled ultimately premiered to high praise at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival as part of International Critics’ Week. From there, the horror/thriller toured a further 18 festivals across five continents, secured a host of awards for director Jang and lead actress Seo Yeong-hee, as well as hauling an impressive $1,130,829 at the Korean box office during its run.
The film’s success is wholly deserved and is chiefly due to the manner in which the narrative seamlessly merges socially-conscious, feminist drama with popular generic conventions. Through the character of Bok-nam, Bedevilled repeatedly reveals the numerous ways in which women are psychologically, emotionally, physically and sexually abused, not only by antagonists symbolic of patriarchal culture but also through the acceptance of such abuse as ‘normal’ by older generations of women. While men are often the perpetrators of shocking physical tortures on kindly Bok-nam, it’s the cruel words of the female elders, who scold her for attempting to deviate from abuse, that truly inspire internal torment and anger within the persecuted young woman and force audiences to engage and empathise with her plight.
Director Jang Cheol-soo and screenwriter Choi Kwan-yeong brilliantly build tension through depicting such abhorrent treatment, exploring the cruelties endured by women in isolated rural communities in ways both insightful and creative, escalating the drama to unbearable levels until the narrative takes a dramatic turn into bloodthirsty – and very much cathartic – genre territory. Ironically the tonal shift feels simultaneously shocking yet wholly natural, due to the intensification of atrocities combined with actress Seo Yeong-hee’s sympathetic turn as Bok-nam, as despite the gore it’s impossible not to support her murderous rampage and she hacks her way through those who have wronged her with palpable feminist righteousness.
Seo Yeong-hee received a number of awards at home and abroad for her performance within Bedevilled, and she certainly equips herself well as the put-upon Bok-nam. Seo manages to make the character more than simply a victim of terrible oppression by conveying Bok-nam’s inherent strength and fierce loyalty in the face of adversity. This is all the more impressive given that her screen time is somewhat limited due to the initial narrative alignment that focuses on Hae-won, before jarringly altering to Bok-nam’s tale of hardship. It is however a wise move, as Hwang Geum-hee’s Hae-won is particularly cold and serves the story much better in a supporting role. The rest of the cast are also highly effective in their performances and seem to take great enjoyment in portraying the villainous islanders. Of special note is Baek Soo-ryeon as the evil matriarch, who is a real joy to hate.
Yet Bedevilled is not without faults. The narrative structure is at times unbalanced, and on occasion seems to forget that certain characters exist as they disappear for periods of time before they suddenly reemerge or simply never return, as is the case with one such role. In terms of directing, the film is quite rough around the edges, but interestingly this is also part of the charm. However despite such issues, the central feminist concerns shine through and leave a lasting impression thanks to a wonderfully executed scene in which the island and Hae-won’s body are faded into each other to create a powerful metaphor, and some highly charged bookend scenes in which the notion of sisterhood is emphasised in order to improve women’s rights.
Bedevilled is a brilliantly entertaining debut by director Jang Cheol-soo. The success of the film lies in the way the narrative seamlessly merges a socially-conscious, feminist drama with popular horror/thriller generic conventions. Featuring a wonderful performance by Seo Yeong-hee who conveys the innate strength of oppressed women who are pushed too far, and with violence that is cathartic and enjoyable rather than repulsive, Bedevilled is a fantastically entertaining film that leaves a strong and lasting impression.