[For the next two weeks, Alec will be covering select films from the New York Asian Film Festival. For complete coverage of the festival, make sure to check out the page for the tag “NYAFF11.” Keep watching throughout the week as we bring you more reviews!]
Creating a truly affecting revenge film is difficult. By design, you are taking a character and turning him/her into a cold-blooded murderer, which makes that character essentially impossible to relate to. To truly convince the audience that the bloodshed is warranted, something truly horrific needs to happen, but that’s not even enough. You may cheer on Camille Keaton’s character in I Spit on your Grave, or the parents in Last House on the Left, but their brutal tactics of revenge, again, make it hard to actually sympathize with them. Watching Bedevilled, I realized two things:
1) Korean directors understand revenge better than any American director ever could.
2) Never watch a revenge film with an audience.
Bedevilled is unlike any other revenge film I have ever seen. The only films that even come close in terms of quality are those in Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, but even those pale in comparison. This film is a testament to the idea of vengeance, and it does absolute justice to the genre in a way I have never seen from an American film.
[minor spoilers]It tells the story of two characters: Hae-Won, a cruel banker with no apparent relationships, and her childhood friend Bok-Nam. Bok-Nam has been contacting Hae-Won in vain for a long time, trying to get her to come to her childhood home of Moo-do Island. Hae-Won, after a problem arises at work, finally accepts the invitation, and goes to the island. When she gets there, it turns out the island’s population has dwindled to nine: All of whom are related in some way to Bok-Nam’s husband,a but, aside from her daughter, not her. Everyone on the island hates her. They force her to work harder than anybody; they ridicule her constantly; her husband’s brother rapes her; and her husband violently beats her; etc. Her daughter is the only person on the island that has even the slightest bit of love for her, and she is Bok-Nam’s only link to sanity. Hae-Won is witness to these atrocities, but she refuses to help. After a horrific incident, Bok-Nam goes insane and gets revenge on the people of the island who treated her so poorly.
Bedevilled is not pleasant to watch. As much as I love it, I’m not sure I will ever see it again. Every single act of violence, to Bok-Nam, her daughter, or anyone else, feels absolutely real. Combine this with the incredible acting (especially on the part of Seo Young-Hee, who plays Bok-Nam), and you have a film that is truly horrific, even before people start being killed. The credits say that there is CGI in the movie, which honestly shocked me, because there was not a single moment that didn’t feel completely legitimate. Even the murders themselves, most of which are committed with a sickle, are honestly frightening in their authenticity. These moments are infecting. They stick in your brain and don’t go away. The horrors of the abuse and murders are absolutely shocking. There is nothing funny about the film. Even though there are jokes, they do nothing to lighten the mood, and actually help further the feeling of horror that pervades the film. In the same way, there is no reason to cheer on Bok-Nam, because what she does is also awful.
BUT, there is a level of understanding and even empathy on the part of the audience that comes with her eventual break from reality. Seeing the torment that she goes through, and understanding that this has been happening literally for years, you feel just as angry as her. For once, you truly empathize with someone who has lost everything. You want to see her get vengeance, because you know that she truly deserves it. Her life has been a living hell, and everyone has done everything they could to make it worse. Call it catharsis or whatever else you want, but the characters are truly some of the most despicable ever put on screen. The murders are brutal, but they are not over-the-top. They feel grounded and realistic, and once again the incredible acting sells the whole thing.
The script is likewise fantastic. The way that Bok-Nam is treated, verbally, by everyone around her is part of what makes her abuse so horrible. Her husband’s physical abuse is nearly matched by the abuse that comes out of the mouths of everyone else. The way that everyone talks to each other is completely natural. Even the more pleasant conversations just feel right. You may have noticed that, outside of the initial synopsis, I have not mentioned the actual protagonist of the film, Hae-Won. This is because she is not the focus of the film. She is there for us to understand what is happening, because we are outsiders in the exact same way that she is. The film begins with her and it ends with her in Seoul, but while she is on Moo-do Island she plays the role of an observer rather than a participant. By having her as a framing story, the film becomes even more powerful, because it provides a look at both the similarities in the life between two polar opposite places, but it also shows the sharp contrasts between Hae-Won’s life and Bok-Nam’s.
As for the film itself, Bedevilled features some truly incredible cinematography. Every shot is damn near perfect. There is not a single wasted frame from beginning to end. Everything that is shown is important, and the camera work is never distracting. Because the film lives and dies by its authenticity, that last point is the most important of all. The editing is all but unnoticable. There are long takes and short takes, but they are never dizzying or confusing. They show the reality of Moo-do Island beautifully, and there is simply nothing else to say about it.
The music is also beautiful, setting the tone of the film with every single note. It is never gratuitous and never gets in the way. It only adds to the atmosphere. Likewise, the sound effects are also suitably horrific. Every single punch, stab, or anything else sounds just as you’d expect it would. Just like the camera work, the sound makes the film feel ever more authentic.
Bedevilled is easily one of the best movies you will ever see in your life. Everything in the film is pretty damn close to perfect. Are there flaws? Probably, but I’ll be damned if I can think of a single one that distracted from the experience (save one, which I will get to later). It is a truly incredible example of an horrifying and affecting revenge film. It is completely authentic. It is completely serious. It is completely amazing. If you ever want to see the pinnacle of the serious revenge genre, you really needn’t look any farther than Bedevilled.
As promised, my one complaint, and the reasoning for #2 on my pre-jump list: When I was studying exploitation films, I read Roger Ebert’s review of the (god-awful) film I Spit on Your Grave. It’s an interesting review because, instead of reviewing the film, he reviewed the audience, and their reactions of laughter and cheering at the rape and eventual murder of the rapists. When I read his review, I guess I laughed it off because that film was so stupid that I didn’t think it was something that really happened. Well, quality doesn’t matter, because it happened last night as well.
I saw the film with a rather large group of people, a number of whom decided that the film was funny and was worth cheering over. Because of this, every few minutes of the second half of the film the audience would there would be applause or raucous laughter, even if it was uncomfortable or awkward laughter. It is a testament to the quality of Bedevilled that it did not ruin the experience for me. If you want to see this film (which you goddamn better!) or any like it, I implore you not to see it in theaters. As wonderful as the big screen is, putting up with the audience is not worth it.