A pedestrian to her own life, Hae-Woon (Seong-Won Ji) takes a forced vacation after an incident in her dead-end job, to go to her home town on a remote Korean island to reunite begrudgingly with her childhood friend. When she gets there she finds the village is extremely backwards and her friend is ill-treated. Eventually her weakness, fear and selfishness cause a devastating chain of events that leave the island in chaos and her own life in danger.
Bedevilled is Chul-soo Yang's directorial debut, although he did serve as assistant director on Ki-Duk Kim's Samaritan Girl, and the influence is there but ultimately he makes the film his own and it is a stellar first feature.
The dictionary definition of the word bedevilled is "to torment mercilessly; plague." This explanation immediately has relevance as the opening shot is the streets of Seoul in disarray, its citizens restless and twisted. Crime erupts like it is business as usual and moments later there is a full on assault. A girl is beaten mercilessly and begs for help. The window of a car in which the camera focuses on winds up. It is a surreal opening, further enhanced by the radio broadcast - a story about a vegetarian field trip and edible plants.
The driver who recedes into her proverbial shell and ignored the attack is Hae-Woon, an office worker that, in the next scene denies a defenseless old woman her claim. There is an air of tension and frustration and this follows her throughout the entire film - her karma and aura naturally radiate negativity; in short Hae-Woon is an extremely unlikeable protagonist. She is weak, selfish and without empathy - she does not even defend herself as she is harassed but sits still, completely neutral. She is driven by fear and internally tortured from her surroundings; she is bedevilled which in turn affects her emotions and reactions, but this is not the true meaning of the film.
Hae-Woon retreats from this world that plagues her. However she does it rather forcibly and sticks to her ideals by remaining a by-stander to her own life. Her boss commands her to go on leave after an incident with another co-worker - a scene driven by a combination of her cynicism and jealousy. Hae-Woon is well known on the island of Moodo which she returns to. Her poker face hides her motivations and intentions, but what is gathered is that she grew up there and in a moment of exposition the local travel boats' captain - also a resident of Moodo, reveals this much. It is not long before she is thrown into this secluded world. She is 'greeted' by herself as a child in a seamless flashback, and then by the village elders.
She begins to witness and subsequently ignore the sexism, domestic violence and outdated lore the elders govern which states that men are king and all women must work extremely, unreasonably hard. It was quite shocking to hear the old woman who rules the village quip that "women are only good with a cock in their mouth". This warped world view surprisingly did not affect Hae-Woon as she just slept through most of the atrocities. Why the men are free to rape and sloth about is not clear but it is certainly the norm. Evil it seems is all relative. Hae-Woon's callousness is nothing in comparison to what happens on the island. Shameless does not begin to describe it, but the severe lack of men may account for a reason; with just a husband, his retarded brother and the aforementioned seafarer for the women to feel 'secure' with.
Kim Bok-Nam (Yeong-hie Seo) is the friend that Hae-Woon came to meet. Yeong-hie gives an amazing performance as a ditsy accommodating laborer and wife, smiling throughout but hiding her complex depression and desperate longing underneath. She is truly the main character and bedeviled in every sense of the word as she is abused by everyone who lives on the island. She purposely ignores her terrible life, and the gradual transition as her tolerance level decreases due to neglect and maltreatment is transcendent.
She pleads to Hae-Woon and her attitude fluctuates but Hae-Woon remains oblivious to it all, even in the face of an unthinkable tragedy Hae-Woon not only turns her back, but later further denies it. Seoul, Moodo, it does not matter. Hae-Woon has not changed and this inaction is the catalyst in Bedevilled that spawns Bok-Nam's transformation.
Bedevilled tackles many dark issues, domestic violence, rape and incest to name a few, and the tone shifts from disturbing and realistic to insane and gruesome and it still fits. In one scene, Bok-Nam tends to fields and the elders can be seen in the background dancing on a table, it is a beautiful day and after slave-driving work Bok-Nam stops suddenly and stares intensely into the sun. It is an unsettling moment and an omen.
Bedevilled concludes with a sense of justice being served, but the finale is undoubtedly unexpected and continues for much longer than expected. Essentially Hae-Woon is given an awakening after her ordeals that she witnesses. Bedevilled's ultimate message may be to simply take responsibility for your actions or in Hae-Woon's case, inaction. It is not a catharsis she faces, merely a realization; stark, cold and vulnerable as the camera pans out from her lying down. It then transitions to the next shot; a faraway view of the island that resembles her prone body and it is truly one of the most sublime moments in cinema.
Bedevilled is really something else, the new Korean wave surprises again by taking its favorite theme - revenge - and twisting it into something quite unique and horribly wonderful - see it.
The quality is incredible, the brightness and emphasis on natural light is accentuated through the lens. The film has an earthy, raw feel to it and each characters tans add to the ethnic islander feel. The violence punctuates and viciously gleams, only adding to the impact.