Broad genres aside, featuring the slightest dose of retribution can relegate most cinematic endeavors to the confines of revenge and its conventions. And for BEDEVILLED (2010), following in the footsteps of the Korean thriller craze was always going to be a case of more of the same. This is a trend that made its entrance with Oldboy over a decade ago and is still active today. Typically such films are dressed as thrillers, combining either mystery, horror, or crime, with the option of gore or revenge on the side. Obviously there was no shortage of local “luminaries” churning out titles in this MO, with some even seemingly staking entire oeuvres on the genre. Except BEDEVILLED is a rare beast among novel predecessors. For a Johnny-come-lately to join the table with a meaningful contribution is exceptional.
There’s a tendency in Korean cinema, at least in the mainstream, to prioritize action and high stylings over subtlety and nuance. Nowhere but in the thriller genre is this particularly evident. In recognizing the chasm between North and South, it becomes understandable that in its rush to catch up, in post-democratization, that such preferences emerge. The mutual assured destruction is chief among South Korea’s new realities as the fine line separating an aspiration toward civilized conformity and the deterrent potential in maintaining a hardened shell. Never mind that such threats won’t reach their intended target. The reassurance that, if only to itself, should push come to shove, a catalog of brutality put on record allows South Koreans to sleep at night.
Not to make a psychological inquiry of things, so, for starters, the limits of credibility are constantly pushed, exceeded even, in some of these films. Hong-jin Na’s THE CHASER (2008) and THE YELLOW SEA (2010) contain a lot of promise that unravels beyond salvage. Gonzo is the maxim. I SAW THE DEVIL (2010) from Jee-woon Kim features a drawn out game of catch-and-release with possible cannibalism tacked on as a side plot. BEDEVILLED, in contrast, doesn’t wear out its welcome so early as it could be seen as one or two scenes too long.
Some of these thrillers’ characters abide by the rule of law, in others revenge is taken upon the protagonist’s hands. In non-revenge narratives, police ineptitude is prevalent along with abuse of their power allowing for social critiques. MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003) is set in the twilight of dictatorship Korea. While grounded in reality, humorous theatrics dominate this serial killer procedural. These histrionics are the norm in most other films, but that’s also innate in Korean vocal intonations. They sound animated as to obscure context and intention. MOTHER (2009), also by Joon Ho Bong, is his best and retains smudges of this humor that undermines his other stuff. Fuck the HOST and the SNOWPIERCER. In it a mother attempts to exonerate her boy and commits crime in her frustration. The similar PIETA (2013) by Ki-duk Kim shows a bereaved mother tricking a loanshark into believing he’s her son, abandoned at birth. Except plot twists and the everflow of gonzo. Can’t we just hack away at our perceived nemeses?
On the surface, Jang Cheol-so’s debut is a film of uneven halves and a misleading set-up. A twenty-something female is assaulted in an alley with the beautiful Hae-won witnessing nearby. Being also extremely callous, she refuses to cooperate during a lineup and, in a separate incident, slaps a coworker over a grave misunderstanding. When forced to take leave from work, she retreats to her ancestral home. Mudo Island. A rigid, morally destitute home to about a dozen farmers. Left unexplained is whether she only visited her [late] grandfather as a child or if she actually grew up there. Either way she’s no stranger after all this time, and once there, things threaten to gradually get out of control for her. And they do when Bok-nam, her friend and hostess, takes over as the central character, a cue obvious from the original title.
That a killer giveaway could survive an impatient audience is possibly due to an engaging prologue, sustained tension, or a reckless gamble altogether. This is from the man who came up under the tutelage of Ki-duk Kim, and some patience is in order. Despite this ruining the surprise or intrigue for Korean audiences, Bok-nam’s takeover will occur after clever distractions; a complex layer of abuse and recurring motifs evoking freedom and a longing to escape the island. As an orphan, being married into the last remaining family is more an issue of survival than fulfillment. More survival for them than for fulfillment for her.
It is here where Cheol-so risks losing momentum once it’s clear a prolonged time on the island is in the cards, and that’s skillfully averted. For Hae-won and Bok-nam, the reasons to leave, once apparent, are compelled by differing motives. Bok-nam hits her breaking point, a lifetime in the making; Hae-won’s idyllic vacation is interrupted. Dignity and selfishness, folks. No human bond can withstand disparate urges of this kind.
Bok-nam as the ugly duckling is also a continuation of fairy tales perversed or borrowed from in Korean cinema. A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, an adaptation from Korean folklore, and a modernized Hansel and Gretel come to mind. During her darkest hour, Bok-nam’s scythe become the glass shoe to Cinderella. She brings the same broken piccolo she could never play as well as Hae-won as kids, begging Hae-won to play a jingle for old times sake and gets stabbed in the jugular with it in an appendix of an ending. Anyway she pulls it from her neck then rests her head on Hae-won’s lap to die. Then, to hammer home the betrayal some more, Hae-won finally opens Bok-nam’s letters which tragically reveal her growing desperation to flee the island all along. Better telegraphed later than earlier.
Where that leaves Bedevilled in the canon of Korean thrillers is up to the beholder. And although overall stylistically average, its philosophical undercurrent rivals Chan-wook Park’s fabled trilogy. The idea (from Mr. Vengeance) that revenge is a necessary evil is hardly a profound statement. Oldboy is a fact-finding mission with a shot at closure. Lady Vengeance? The flame out moment in the opus which renounces substance for the aesthetic. And as much as we’re left to cheer on Bok-nam, BEDEVILLED neither condemns nor condones. A fresh take on revenge in bringing to mind the complicity of passive bystanders. By turning the camera outwards, Cheol-so delivers a scathing critique of silent inaction.