Fantastic Fest 2010: BEDEVILLED Review

Have you ever felt a chill on a warm day? BEDEVILLED unfurls under calm, sunny skies in a location that resembles a certain kind of paradise. Moo-do Island is pastoral and lush. Populated with just a handful of people, it looks like the perfect getaway for a woman on the run from her personal demons.

Hae-won (Ji Sung-won) witnessed a crime, but doesn't want to testify against the gang of young toughs. Instead, she explodes in anger at a persistent older woman seeking a bank loan. She's even more furious when a fellow worker helps the old lady, after Hae-won had yelled at the woman to get out and never return.

Hae-won's outburst prompts her boss to order her to get out -- and take a week's vacation. She is clearly on edge from her encounter with the hoodlums, but seems the type to keep it bottled up inside until it bubbles forth in rage.

She decides to return to Moo-do Island after an absence of 15 years. Her grandfather lived on the isolated island until his death, and evidently she thinks the place can heal her in some way.

Her return is not greeted warmly. Grandma, a scowling old woman, insults her appearance and declares her an idiot for coming where tourists are not welcome. "You'll regret your decision in one day." Three other old women follow Grandma's lead in criticizing Hae-won for coming back. Two men look menacing, and an old man is zonked out from chewing "Bozo Leaves," the local equivalent of coca leaves. (It leaves you acting like a Bozo.)

Bak-run (Seo Yeong-hee) is the exception. Her eyes light up when she sees Hae-won, her childhood friend. She looks at Hae-won a creature who's traveled to another planet. Considering the conditions on Moo-do Island, that's understandable. For all its beauty, it is very primitive by Seoul standards in 2010. (Bak-run says in amazement, "You do your laundry in a room? How strange!")

It's not just the lack of modern conveniences, though. Bak-run's husband, Man-jong, turns out to be a monstrous terror, a wife-beating thug who thinks nothing of having sex with a prostitute while his wife works just outside the door. He's not much nicer to their little girl, a friendly spirit, and there's a sickening sensation that his affections for the girl are venturing into incestuous territory.

Why is Bak-run so downtrodden and submissive to such awful conditions? And what, if anything, will Hae-won do to help her old friend?

For a long stretch of running time, BEDEVILLED is infuriating to watch. The sense of defeatism is overwhelming, and the characters on the island are the worst sort of dysfunctional family scum. Debut director Jang Cheol-Soo manipulates the situation like crazy, pushing the same buttons over and over again.

That kind of manipulation hinges on the reaction of the viewer. If you resent that sort of thing, you might turn away with disinterest. Or, you might react like I did (and much of the audience at the Fantastic Fest screening) and find yourself boiling with anger at the characters, hoping to see a mighty reversal of fortune for Bak-run.

To say the film's resolution has been perfectly set up by the preceding actions is putting it mildly.

As a first-time director, Jang builds the atmosphere and mood in an unusual way. By setting nearly all the narrative during the day, when the island's beauty is at its mostly appealing, what takes place among its human inhabitants is all the more appalling. Jang's script may not appear subtle, but the effect he achieves is brutally intense, wrenching guts and upending sympathies.

In the post-screening Q&A, Jang noted that his influences for the film include PSYCHO and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. His film is not in the same league as those, but he could have a good career ahead of him. I'm eager to see what he does next.

BEDEVILLED plays again at Fantastic Fest on Wednesday, September 29.
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