Madonna (마돈나) – ★★★☆☆

Madonna (마돈나)

Madonna (마돈나)

With debts mounting and depression looming, single thirty-something Hae-rim (Seo Yeong-hee (서영희) takes employment as a nurse on an exclusive VIP ward at a large hospital. Stunned by the difference in care the social-elite command, Hae-rim nevertheless works hard to provide treatment for her patient – an elderly and particularly wealthy mogul, whose son and heir Sang-woo (Kim Yeong-min (김영민) endeavours to keep alive whatever the cost. Following the tycoon’s latest heart transplant rejection time has seemingly run out, until the arrival of a comatose Jane Doe signals another possibility of prolonging his life. Yet upon Hae-rim’s discovery that the potential donor is pregnant, Sang-woo charges her with discovering the patient’s identity and obtaining permission from her next of kin, and in digging deeper into the life of Mi-na (Kwon So-hyeon (권소현) – nicknamed ‘Madonna’ – Hae-rim unearths some truly disturbing revelations.

Hae-rim is charged with locating Mi-na's next of kin

Hae-rim is charged with locating Mi-na’s next of kin

Featuring an equally impassioned sense of social injustice that made her prior film Pluto such a festival hit, writer/director Shin Su-won’s Madonna is a potent and unrelenting exploration of class inequality and misogyny in contemporary Korean society, one that potently generates debate on a great number of issues. The noir-esque drama also represents a clear technical evolution for Shin, as her collaboration with Yun Ji-woon’s on camera duties and Lee Shin-hye’s production design has yielded a noticeable level of visual finesse. Yet ultimately Madonna falls prey to overambition as the narrative attempts to include such a vast array of societal ills that the viewing experience becomes a punishing test of endurance, while structural imbalances in the final act tend to drain emotional resonance from the story. That said, Madonna is certainly one of the best Korean releases in the first half of 2015, and its premiere at Cannes was utterly deserved.

Director Shin displays incredible insight in regards to the culture of bullying within Korean culture, which she expresses through examining the rather vicious class system and associated sense of privilege, as well as the seemingly ingrained sexism and abuse that patriarchy knowingly perpetuates. The VIP wing beautifully captures such philosophies through portraying the excesses afforded to the rich clientele, with rooms adorned as if royalty were visiting yet are wonderfully cast in shadow to imply the secretive, macabre nature of the ward. The sense of entitlement expressed through the occupants articulate the amoral stance of the wealthy, with scenes featuring the chastisement of doctors akin to torture, the sexually predatory nature aimed at nurses, and one particularly effective confrontation, a discussion regarding obtaining organs via the Chinese black market. The hospital, as with the school in Pluto, is a location in which human rights abuses occur not only undisturbed, but are accepted.

As such, Hae-rim’s task in tracking Mi-na’s relatives becomes not merely an investigative case, but one that comes to embody an acute sense of social justice – for her, her unborn baby, and underprivileged women in general.

Hae-rim's investigation reveals a dark underbelly of abuse and misogyny

Hae-rim’s investigation reveals a dark underbelly of abuse and misogyny

With the advent of Hae-rim’s mission, the narrative switches from the tightly controlled and well paced clinic-centric drama to a non-linear one that examines the issues Hae-rim currently endures, alongside flashbacks that unveil the experiences that led to Mi-na’s hospitalisation. Initially the noir-esque device works wonderfully as it allows director Shin to explore an even greater array of societal abuse, victimisation and psychological trauma. As Hae-rim goes beyond her remit she discovers the horrifying tale of her ‘Madonna’ – of a woman abused at every level of society by those around her, with the cruelty she endures generating a more religious appropriation for her namesake as opposed to the pop idol.

Yet as the flashbacks detailing Mi-na’s past become increasingly longer, Hae-rim’s journey succumbs to a supporting role, and as a result the intrigue and tension initially constructed regarding the hospital and her position within it ultimately dissipates, as does the invest in her character. The different timelines also fail to generate an emotional connection between the two women given their very different trajectories. Director Shin seems to become aware of this and, quite jarringly, inserts a traumatic scene to create the required empathy yet due to the unbalanced structure of the final act, it doesn’t quite work as effectively as it could.

The consistent depiction of abuse towards Mi-na also becomes problematic as the film becomes akin to a gruelling test of endurance. The atrocities committed become ever more horrifying – and in one particular confrontation needlessly graphic – that lack the emotional and contextual gravitas as with, say, Han Gong-ju, resulting in provoking the debate of ‘just how far is too far’ in the depiction of sexual violence instead of the intended discourse of sexual assault on marginalised women.

In the role of Mi-na/Madonna however, newbie actress Kwon So-hyeon is terrific. She wholeheartedly commits to the role with impressive verve and courage with a performance that is likely to cement her as a presence in Korean indie cinema for years to come. Seo Yeong-hee meanwhile, who previously portrayed female abuse and cathartic revenge to stunning effect in Bedevilled, performs highly capably in what is ultimately an emotionally limited role. Her presence, while cold, is charismatic and her return as a powerful female lead is welcome indeed.

Mi-na's traumatic history of abuse is revealed through potent flashbacks

Mi-na’s traumatic history of abuse is revealed through potent flashbacks

Verdict:

Madonna is an impassioned story of social injustice and sexist abuse in contemporary Korean society by writer/director Shin Su-won. Displaying an evolved visual finesse and featuring a potent exploration of the cruel class system, the noir-esque drama is an unflinching take on societal ills. The film ultimately becomes a gruelling test of endurance and lacking in emotional resonance due to final act structural imbalances, yet despite this Madonna is certainly one of the best Korean films of 2015 so far.

★★★☆☆

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Bedevilled (김복남 살인사건의 전말) – ★★★★☆

Bedevilled (김복남 살인사건의 전말)

Bedevilled (김복남 살인사건의 전말)

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.

Bok-nam is overjoyed when childhood friend Hae-won returns to the island

Bok-nam is overjoyed when childhood friend Hae-won returns to the island

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.

The women on the rural island community are forced to endure horrific abuse, particularly kindly Bok-nam

Women on the rural island community are forced to endure horrific abuse, particularly kindly Bok-nam

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.

Despite the bloodshed, Bok-nam's feminist rampage is wonderfully cathartic

Despite the bloodshed, Bok-nam’s feminist rampage is wonderfully cathartic

Verdict:

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.

★★★★☆

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