Jang Cheol-soo has an incredible cine-clock ticking within, a marvellous metronome that I like to imagine he has swinging and tocking above his desk as he writes and plans his work. This constant ticking then harmonises with whatever creative genius takes hold of him as puts pen to paper. A film like Jang's debut film "Bedevilled" is the result of such a ritual; a gorgeously grotesque genre film that hypnotises and horrifies with the percussive precision of a mad watchmaker come autistic composer. The film ebbs and flows like a daring dream; one that's sweet and surreal, but whose intent is deranged and two-faced, mixing together melodrama, horror, and revenge into a compelling cinematic concoction that bubbles and boils over in the most spectacle fashion imaginable.
Hae-won (Hwang Geum-hee) is a low-level bank employee with a severely selfish streak that prevents her from reaching out of her own protective bubble. She ignores the assault of young woman in the streets of Seoul, refuses to assist an elderly woman at her bank with a loan, and even when placed behind the comfort of one-way glass she avoids identifying guilty thugs. She's cold and cut-off, lacking substance and sympathy. After an incident at work (whereby she slaps the spit out of one her colleges) her manager forces her to take some time off to cool down. This neurotic and passionless person finds it's hard to unwind as she is seemingly possessed by an up-tight demon of the highest order. After downing a Guinness and lounging around her apartment for a day, Hae-won decides to visit her childhood home for a week; a small island off the mainland home to less than a dozen sun-struck locals who barely recognise this white-skinned Seoul city girl.
As she approaches the island shores, her childhood friend Bok-nam (Seo Young-hee) is ecstatically waving and welcoming. The two grew-up together, but their differences are instantly made apparent as Hae-won's pristine and perfect skin and white dress contrasts against Bok-nam's sun-slapped skin and baggy island attire. The other villagers are less excited to see this estranged city creature, and the head matriarch (played by Baek Su-ryeon) dismisses her presence by stating she will last not more than a few days. This first encounter with the rest of islanders hints at something cruel, the island has a hermetic cult whose pecking order has, sadly, Bok-man at the very bottom. Bok-nam's husband (Park Jung-hak) and his brother (Bae Sung-woo) are the only men on the island (save for one other mute grandfather who spends his days chewing leaves and sitting in peace), and their grim demeanours and abusive attitude towards Bok-nam becomes apparent almost immediately. Bok-nam's husband, his brother, the crocodile-skinned matriarch (along with the rest of the geese that trail along behind her) have berated, beaten, and psychologically tortured her for years, and now that her old friend has returned she hopes that Hae-won will make good on her childhood promise to take her to Seoul to start a new life with her daughter.
"Bedevilled" is the story of unbalanced and tragic friendship; of a woman pushed so far that her soul has no choice but to open its gates to any murderous demon that wishes to take possession. Bok-nam has ben trapped on the island her whole life, and with no support whatsoever, she has been pounded into a passive pushover that many will feel frustrated at, but will also sadly sympathises with. The pure extent of the injustice is staggering, and when her Hae-won, once again, fails to step up for her (as her last slither of hope in this world) her mind starts to melt.
Like Jang's 2013 hit "Secretly and Greatly", the film is stunning shot. Jang's masterly cine-eye produces some of the most potent images I've seen in Korean cinema, visions and moments that I've never been able to exorcise, nor want to. In addition to the film's captivating beat and engorging pacing, Jang harnesses light and shadow like a possessed puppet master. Little details are there to be seen; compositions are intriguing and layered with textual teeth that bite deeper into the film's creative torrent of emotions. Shoes, for example, are constantly mused over. Whether it be Ha-man's expensive pumps, Bok-nam's plastic sandals, or her husband's beaten-up boots, Jang often finds time to pause on such items as we ponder the purpose and path such seemingly trivial items suggest. The sun, whether it be through the difference in skin tones or the source of Bok-nam's possession, is also an interesting motif that casts shadows and secrets on scene after scene: a fiery force that is constantly trying to burn through the tale right up until Bok-nam boils over and snaps. Clothes, food, and other elemental forces are also called upon to add depth and visual intrigue to Jang's stellar story of failed friendship, abuse, and blood.
The stars of this overcast first outing performing excellently. From its leading ladies to the abusive brothers, the film's tiny cast produce potent performances that seem to possess an extra-dimension and richness that compels emotions and snuffs any apathy towards them. They are dense and purposefully placed to invoke intense angry, compassion, and disgust. The island's manic matriarch and passive patriarch are a great example of this, and serve a story that handles gender politics in a nuanced and resilient fashion. Even the submissive tribe of meek elderly woman that make up the island's numbers summon sentiments that cannot be reduced to background buzz. "Bedevilled" is compacted with worthwhile performances, typified by Seo Young-hee who won a number of Best Actress awards for her dynamic and devastating dance with demons.
The film came out in 2010, a year flecked with great titles such as "The Man From Nowhere", "Moss", "The Unjust", "Hello Ghost", and "The Servant", and although it did not make it into the year's top ten at the box office, the film was still a huge success. It almost doubled its production cost of $636,363 and flagged Jang as a serious talent for the future. However despite the film's brilliance, many noticed that the film floundered somewhat at the end; not entirely, but there was a gap or two that skipped a beat in what was otherwise a perfectly pitched piece. To this day Jang Cheol-soo's debut "Bedevilled" remains one of my personal favourites, and is perhaps tops my list of revenge films the country has become famous for. The film's final images, like to many of its compositions, is a testament to the creative demon Jung's seems to be able to summon and will forever remain flickering in my mind's eye for years to come.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from YESASIA
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