Many so-called ‘revenge’ movies have an often deservedly grim reputation as exploitative vehicles which cynically pander to the baser instincts of some viewers, and if a film is marketed solely by its central bloody revenge theme, other viewers can be disappointed by the vacuous and morally cheap content that adorns their screens in meaningless crimson.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and Chul-soo Yang’s stunning Bedevilled (Kim Bok-nam salinsageonui jeonmal) is a meticulous and gripping drama which explores the slow yet inexorable journey a downtrodden woman makes towards the realisation of an inevitable and very brutal revenge. Yang’s picture is astonishing not only for his ability to create an absorbing story to underpin the brutality, but also because Bedevilled marks his directorial debut.
Yang’s movie is almost modular in its construction, with the early scenes focusing on icy-cold career woman Hae-won (Seong-won Ji). Resentful of her fellow female workers, she runs into trouble in the office, and despite her weariness of a voice from the past who keeps imploring her to visit, she decides to give in and visit the island where she grew up.
Once at the island, Hae-won is reunited with her childhood acquaintance, Bok-nam, and she discovers that both women, despite their differing facades, are desperately unhappy.
Against the stunning backdrop of the beautiful island, the likeable yet clumsy Bok-nam is beaten, sexually abused, ritually bullied by the other women in the community, and treated with similar disdain by her young daughter. Yang presents a stark analysis of both gender and generational breakdown, with the gender references persisting until the very last shot. The cackling older women have abandoned their femininity, and either drifted towards drab androgyny, or adopted the least desirable characteristics of the men (none more so than the appalling and shameless dominant elder, Auntie). Yet for all of that, the women are quick to seize the masculine threat of the men, often bemoaning their absence whilst they are away, and crying out for the men to come and restore order. The men, on the other hand, abuse their masculinity mercilessly, by over-stepping generational divisions (the scenes with Bok-nam’s daughter are disturbing to the extreme), exerting their strength to perform abuse, shirking their responsibilities whilst enjoying excesses of food and alcohol, or becoming completely ineffective, such as the male elder who remains almost motionless throughout. Whilst the eyes of Seoul are unable to see, the tiny community performs its appalling abuse and neglect across the water with impunity.
Yet the super-urban and modernised Seoul is coping with problems of its own, and for the technological and cultural chasm existing between the two, Seoul is home to its own share of abuse. Perhaps most pertinently, there are those in Seoul who are willing to turn a blind eye in the name of self-preservation, and Yang demonstrates throughout Bedevilled that those who turn a blind eye to the perpetrators are helping to perpetuate the depressing lifecycles of violence and abuse.
Yang’s feature is a grim and uncompromising tale, yet there are moments of great sensitivity to balance the misery. Bok-nam is a wonderful character with an incredible core of positivity and resilience, and in Hae-won she chooses to see hope, and goodness. Indeed, it’s little wonder that Bok-nam yearns for affection from the cold Hae-won. Whilst Hae-won is mainly cool, aloof, and uncaring, she does at least represent safety in terms of lacking any direct form of threat, and she is tolerant as Bok-nam briefly – and clumsily - crosses the line between affection and something more sexual. After years of unpleasant and unremitting abuse from multiple male figures, it’s almost inevitable that Bok-nam should be allured and fascinated by the clean femininity of her childhood friend, and the scene in the rock pool where Bok-nam washes Hae-won is both touching and delicate. Similarly touching is the moment where Bok-nam attempts to emulate the yogic poses of Hae-won, almost knocking her over before gleefully laying down and gently pressing her face into that of her old friend.
Yang shows a deft hand in constructing his debut feature. The capture of the unfolding events is impressive, with each shot demonstrating remarkable composition and framing. The contrasting scenes of Hae-won in the clinical and uniform Seoul , and Bok-nam in the lush countryside of the island, are equally vivid. And when the bloodshed finally arrives, the effects are convincing, and the result devastating.
In terms of negatives, it’s difficult to identify them in a film of such careful and measured approach. Some might draw attention to the strong polarisation of characterisation, with the unpleasant characters proving unremittingly so, yet the characterisation rarely feels artificial, and the eventual impact maintains its weight as a result. Some may also suggest that at almost two hours, events are a little overcooked, but the film never drags, and the slow-burn of the build up is an essential ingredient for the finished piece.
Movies adopting revenge themes as a mechanism to exploit scene upon scene of eye-watering violence were once notable exceptions, but such examples are commonplace today. Any gore-hungry viewers expecting their baser lusts to be fulfilled so cheaply will be disappointed here, as Chul-soo Yang’s Bedevilled provides a slow-burning and deeply sympathetic story of a strong, sensitive, and mercilessly abused woman whom we come to know, to understand, and to care for. Indeed, when her rage becomes absolute, you won’t for a moment feel anything other than complete vindication for her violent actions. It is a brutal film; that much is true, and yet it is also warm, sensitive, and tender, and those who engage with the often distressing yet carefully constructed chain of events leading up to Bok-nam’s violent awakening will be rewarded with a rich, emotional, and thought-provoking experience which endures long after the film’s closure.
Bedevilled is a carefully shot and composed film, capturing some beautiful scenes and frequently presenting huge swathes of colour and detail. And Optimum deserve credit yet again as they perform a typically respectful and impressive task in bringing this to Blu-ray on region B. Presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the reproduction is unwaveringly stunning, with the wide shots of the island landscape and the sea demonstrating the full quality of Yang’s feature. Colours are vibrant and rich throughout, and the blacks and darker scenes are reproduced with great clarity and definition; in short, you never feel remotely disengaged as a result of the reproduction, and can allow yourself to be fully absorbed by Bok-nam’s unfolding journey.
As it’s a two hour film, the film file itself is rather large at over 33Gb. The compression method is MPEG-4 AVC, and this performs transparently as the transfer is clean, distortion free, and seamless. The total disc size is 34.6Gb.
The supplied subtitles are in English, and are perfectly sized and positioned. Some may find the translation unusual, as much of the dialect is littered with slang, and this is represented faithfully in the subtitle translations.
Sound is available in either 2.0 LPCM, or 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio, and the aural backdrop does not undermine the quality of the visuals. The construction of the sound doesn’t rely upon gimmicks; instead, the surround elements focus on more subtle details, with the rear speakers providing background sounds such as the island wildlife, lapping sea water, or the boat engine. That’s not to say that there aren’t some moments where the surround is taken advantage of a little more overtly; the gunshots, for instance, sweep across the sound stage. Yet this is a careful film, and the soundtrack is pitched with the same judicial decision making as the other components.
The tonal delivery is also strong, with a pleasing range of deep yet tight bass, through to crystal clear treble. The piano sounds, in particular, are beautifully reproduced, and voices are well positioned throughout.
For such a moving and powerful film, it’s a shame to report that this release is somewhat light on extras, though what is here is warmly welcomed. A modest Behind the Scenes featurette forms the bulk of the added material at 12 minutes 50 seconds, and whilst it is simply a collection of footage chunks from the film’s production with no commentary or narration, this doesn’t spoil the content, and grants us an interesting insight into many of the film’s most significant scenes.
The Trailer and TV Spot are also included, although there is very little difference between the two.
A shortage of extras may be a disappointment here, but with a debut of this quality, it almost feels greedy to ask for more. Yang’s gripping debut on this high quality Optimum release should prove enough of an allure for fans, and far from being a straightforward revenge piece, Bedevilled is a demanding experience which provides rich rewards for those who invest the time and effort to engage with Bok-nam’s tortured story.