When Jang Cheol-so’s Korean revenge drama “Bedevilled” premiered at Cannes, critics had a tough time figuring out if they liked it. As the portrait of a damaged woman whose life consists of an abusive marriage and little else, it spends nearly an hour lingering in her depressing existence before suddenly turning into a slasher movie. It’s an unkempt mix, a chaotic unevenness that fits the feeling of entrapment plaguing the protagonist until she decides to fight back. The gruesome outcome of her rage has an emotional finality that few American slashers have ever approached, maybe because the genre has been notoriously unkind to the fates of female characters. “Bedevilled” lets them fight back.
Back to Cannes: Unable to easily categorize the irregular blend of melodrama and fear, Variety derided “Bedevilled” for being “a confusing genre hodgepodge,” while The Hollywood Reporter proclaimed that it “suffers from crude and obvious villains.” In fact, neither critique misses the mark, although I find that those very traits strengthen the movie’s dramatic appeal.
“Bedevilled” satisfies the expectations of at least two or three genres, but never once alters the path of its characters. The central plot involves Hae-won Chung (Ji Sung-won), a bank employee living in Seoul, and her childhood friend Kok-nam (Seo Yeong-hee), now lurking on the remote island of Moo-do with her mean-spirited husband and alienated daughter. The first few scenes revolve around Hae-won’s dissatisfaction with her life in Seol, a seemingly uneasy existence that doesn’t compare to Kok-nam’s own problems. When Hae-won witnesses a murder and refuses to cooperate with authorities out of fear for her life, she decides to go visit Hae-won, at which point the narrative shifts to focus on the married woman’s plight.
The contrast between the two women, whose curious relationship has romantic undertones, makes “Bedevilled” feel like a tragic love story that also deals with the contrasting frustrations of urban and rural life. Hae-won’s gripes are rendered moot by her old friend’s comparatively hellish problems. Jang’s portrayal of Kok-nam’s life digs into a deep-seated sexism at the core of the country’s social dynamic. The elderly women on Moo-do consciously look the other way when Kok-nam’s husband slaps her around and openly sleeps with a prostitute, then criticize her for trying to get her daughter off the island. Jang dwells in this miserable display for so long that his subject’s eventual descent into insanity seems like her only available option.
Formerly the assistant director for Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk, Jang takes a sturdy, patient approach to his storytelling that’s rare among first-time filmmakers. The prolonged build-up to the violence allows Kok-nan to earn her eventual revenge streak while making the outcome of her anger remarkably fatalistic. Jang doesn’t cheer her on, but he still shows the method to her madness.
That was apparently too much baggage for Variety’s critic, whose review contained the complaint that “Jang’s film drifts from one genre to another without fully coming into its own.” That’s because “Bedevilled” doesn’t reinvent the wheel; it just turns several of them at once, resulting in a nimbly executed multi-genre experience.
“Bedevilled” finally found an appreciative crowd at Fantastic Fest, a gathering of genre fans willing to accept hybrids if they get the job done with proficiency. Winning the festival’s top audience award on Monday night, beating out any number of more contained genre exercises that stick to the basics, “Bedevilled” revealed the festival’s ability to prop up so-called “challenging” cross-genre films by giving them proper context.
Providing a new framework for the movie highlights its previously neglected strengths, akin to the effect of the Fantastic Fest showcase for “Antichrist” in 2009. Suddenly, a “controversial” thriller from Cannes bypassed that label and came into its own as a seriously deranged tale of failed domesticity and murder.
“Antichrist” and “Bedevilled” are ostensibly horror movies about women held captive by their grief — but they’re also exhilarating, radical engagements with themes typically viewed in a more subdued fashion. In both cases, it took the Fantastic Fest scene to applaud the wild ride instead of simply gasping and moving on.