This first film from writer/director Jang Cheol-so is a blunt, ruthless feminist revenge flick. Despite some problematic storytelling devices, it isn’t hard to see why Fantastic Fest attendees bestowed the audience award upon it–Bedevilled is one intelligent, efficient catharsis factory.
As the film progresses, it becomes very clear to the audience–though not to Hae-won–that Bok-nom and her daughter are working desperately to survive a misogynist hell. Bok-nom’s husband beats her and frequently orders prostitutes from Seoul, and her husband’s brother takes regular sexual advantage of her. They force her into slave labor and they offer no respite. The female elders, in the film’s least effective bid for audience sympathy, constantly make derogatory remarks about their own sex, speaking in outrageous aphorisms like “a woman is happiest with a dick in her mouth” and the like. Essentially, Jang piles it on such that every time the camera pans past a sharp object, the audience tenses with anticipation. Understandably, the first half of the film is a tad unforgiving, and, while there’s nothing really visually explicit, watching men and women alike exhibit so much devious control over Bok-nom is near unbearable to watch.
But it’s not all just empty cruelty. The film does an extraordinary job of exploring Bok-nom’s psychology, and her interactions with just about anyone are fascinating to watch. Hae-won, with her urban malaise and no facility to deal with it, makes a great foil for Bok-nom’s ceaselessly optimistic slave. Jang takes his good old time constructing his world before turning it upside down, and this allows the audience to consider the sheer momentousness of Bok-nom’s reality. Due to that restraint and Seo Yeong-hee’s commanding presence, when Bedevilled finally enters its blood-stained last act, it is positively enrapturing.
Beneath this very effective revenge flick, there is a clear, if sometimes heavy-handed, theme. It’s not that men are cruel, or that women are equal; it is that people are selfish, blind things – islands, if you will. Hae-won, between her introduction and the film’s conclusion, is hardly in the movie. She takes a passive, completely ignorant role in island affairs that mirrors her frustrating refusal to identify the perpetrator of an assault at the beginning of the film. It is only when she is forced into the center of a much greater, deeper conflict that she sees outside of herself, and it is here where this already outstanding slasher distinguishes itself: Bedevilled cares about its characters’ relationships, and, even more impressively, human relationships in general.