Friday, July 8, 2011

At the New York Asian Film Festival: The Thinking Woman's Korean Revenge Thriller

Posted By on Fri, Jul 8, 2011 at 4:45 PM

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The New York Asian Film Festival continues this weekend at the FSLC; Bedevilled screens on Sunday evening.

Bedevilled opens on a black screen as a disembodied male voice tells a forgettable tale he builds up as “the story of the week.” Meanwhile, on the busy street outside, two boys brutally beat a young woman and then saunter after her as she tries to escape, pleading for help from an uncaring crowd. One of these bystanders is the unseen driver from whose perspective we’re watching (the calm male voice we hear is on her radio), who rolls up her tinted window as the terrorized woman bangs on the car. Welcome to the world of Bedevilled, a soulless Seoul and an even harsher nearby island, where men brutalize at will and women go along with it.

The woman in the car is Hae-won (Seong-won Ji), an ice-queen loan officer who seems to have shut out every instinct or shred of human feeling except self-preservation. At first, the film seems to be heading into Drag Me to Hell territory as Hae-won denies a mortgage to a desperate old woman. But things take a much more interesting turn when she takes a forced vacation to the island of Moo-do.

Once there, the focus shifts to Bok-nam (a vibrant Yeong-hie Seo), Hae-won’s friend from girlhood summers on the island. Her big brown eyes glittering with emotion in her expressive face, Bok-nam brims with the humanity and essential decency Hae-won has repressed, despite being treated with cruelty and contempt by everyone on the island. Raped, beaten, mocked, and treated like a pack animal, it’s no wonder she doesn’t know enough to realize what a false friend Hae-won is, though it’s clear to us when we see Hae-won being dismissive in the present and cruel in childhood flashbacks.

But there’s a limit to what even Bok-nam can tolerate. In the classic revenge scenario, women and children get raped and/or murdered and men get revenge, but Bok-nam has to rely on herself for everything, including revenge. In stalking and dispatching her tormentors, she follows in the bloody footsteps left by The Bride in Kill Bill, the Jennifers of I Spit on Your Grave and Jennifer’s Body, and the mothers of them all, Thelma and Louise.

It’s a feminist twist on an old formula, but that doesn’t mean women are let off the hook. The first people Bok-nam goes after are the women who went along with the sadistic men, empowering them with their silence and their outright collusion. And the last is Hae-won, whose betrayal cut deepest of all.

There’s some sickening satisfaction in seeing Bok-nam wreak her revenge, but Bedevilled doesn’t luxuriate in its own gore. The killings are gruesome: Bok-nam’s victims don’t do much screaming or pleading or even crying out in pain much, and there’s almost no background music to distract from the magnified sound of blades ripping through stubborn sinew. This is no reactionary exercise in bloodlust; it’s a condemnation of the evil men do and, counter-intuitively, a battle cry for kindness and social consciousness. The triumph in Bedevilled isn’t that Bok-nam gets back at the people who abused her. It’s that her killing spree breaks down her former friend’s apparently unbreachable defenses and inspires her to abandon the code of silence she has been living by, fingering the thugs from the opening scene who she had been too afraid to identify.

Gi-tae Kim’s beautiful camerawork and Mi-joo Kim’s editing quietly reinforce the mood without drawing attention to themselves (an exception is a series of jump cuts, shot from below, of Bok-nam chopping away at her unseen husband while red “blood” sprays onto her face and the camera’s lens). One example is the way the dark tale is shot, mostly at night or under the sickly greenish cast of fluorescent lighting at first and then blossoming into bright daylight after Bok-nam roars into action.

The final scene is a stunner, too: a cut from Hae-won’s prone body to a long shot of Moo-do that reveals the fact that the tormented island is shaped like a woman on her back. It’s an eloquent metaphor for the oppression of women, and an elegant end to this thinking person’s revenge movie.

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