It doesn't matter how tightly you close your eyes, or how convincingly you seem indifferent; eventually something will breach the walls you've put up to protect yourself from the world at large. As a defense mechanism from the hostility that surrounds everyday life, apathy makes a lot of sense. Trouble is, all of that apathy simply allows unkindness to grow, flourish and become the norm. When cynicism is praised and antagonism is considered an attribute, it becomes increasingly difficult to be involved, difficult to care and to help those who need it most, especially when doing so inevitably complicates an already complicated situation.
That is the premise behind 'Bedevilled,' the auspicious 2010 directorial debut of Cheol-soo Jang, former assistant director to Ki-duk Kim ('Samaritan Girl'). The film takes a stark look at apathy brought on by what may be what the director and writer, Gwan-young Choi, see as the decline of civilization in the supposedly refined confines of Seoul, South Korea. When the film begins, the audience is thrown into a bustling, crowded and dirty Seoul, where, to the general indifference of those milling around, two men are in the process of an assault on a young woman. As she flees her pursuers, the victim comes to the passenger-side window of a car stopped in traffic. Through the POV of the driver, the audience is asked to watch as apathy takes hold and the young woman's last hope silently rolls up the window and slowly pulls away, leaving her at the whim of her inevitable attackers.
To make matters worse, we soon learn that the driver of the car was a young woman named Hae-won (Sung-won Ji), who is later asked to identify the perpetrators, but claims to be unable to do so for fear of reprisal. Initially, hers is an apathy seemingly brought on by anxiety; one that comes from being a woman in a place filled with crime, violence and the ever-present menace of sexual assault. In the brief span of our introduction to her, Hae-won is met with comments, proposals or threats that are entirely based on her looks and her gender. It's clear she's a non-entity to most men; she's an object, and that treatment has bred in her a hostility toward others that not only makes her unlikable, but also guilty of judging other women as she has been judged.
After an incident at work leads to a forced vacation, Hae-won is left with little to do and eventually winds up traveling to Moo-do island, where her grandfather used to live and she would spend time on as a child. Hae-won partially travels there as a means to pass the time until she can return to work, but she does so also in response to the requests from a childhood friend named Kim Bok-nam (Young-hee Seo). Once there, it quickly becomes clear the treatment Hae-won has endured pales in comparison to the life of the friend she had left behind.
Bok-nam is the only young woman on Moo-do Island, the rest are all elderly women who see her as little more than cheap labor and the ungrateful wife to Man-jong (Jeong-hak Park). The old women, who see themselves as second-class citizens in the presence of the men, adore Man-jong and his laconic brother Chul-jong (Sung-woo Bae) to the point of near idolatry. The women look the other way as Man-jong beats his wife, and Chul-jong – fueled by bozo leaf – takes to sexually assaulting her while his brother is out night fishing. It's a miserable existence for Bok-nam; one made worse by the presence of her young daughter Yeon-hee (Ji-eun Lee), who Bok-nam begins to suspect is being molested by Man-jong.
Though difficult to watch, the abuse that Bok-nam suffers feels plausible within the context of the film, and never ventures too far into the realm of cruelty to come off being simply sadistic or yet another entry in the tired torture porn category. It is a psychological assault, as much as it is physical. This aspect is imperative in allowing both the film's climax to have the proper tone, as well as the overall impact of what 'Bedevilled' is trying to convey. The first half of the film also goes a long way in telling why the young Bok-nam would endure such hardship and mistreatment; it's as though she were bearing the brunt of the attacks in order to keep the vile truth of Moo-do from touching her child.
But when the abuse comes to Yeon-hee, while Hae-won remains apathetic and reluctant to help her friend, Bok-nam enlists the assistance of a prostitute Man-jong occasionally invites to the island to help make her way to Seoul with Yeon-hee in tow.
Naturally, Bok-nam's escape from Moo-do is cut short by yet another man with ties to the island, and in Man-jong's rage, Bok-nam is left with nothing to save, and no reason to endure further mistreatment. 'Bedevilled' is turned on its ear, and at this point the film becomes a gloriously messy, brutal affair that imagines what a woman, mercilessly plagued by a torrent of abuse might become. The film's latter half is both justice in action, and a gleefully magnificent exercise in revenge.
The carnage Bok-nam wreaks upon her oppressors is as poignant as it is gruesome, carrying with it a measured, intelligent message told through a dizzying amount of carnage. What's most surprising is that while Bok-nam loses everything (including her mind), 'Bedevilled,' with its precise direction, never loses sight of where it's going or why. And as a result, we are presented with a powerful, entertaining and gorgeous film that holds those who would remain idle in as much contempt as the perpetrators of any crime. The message is clear, and thankfully, 'Bedevilled' delivers its condemnation of apathy and the abuse of women in such a way that the audience doesn't feel preached to.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 codec on 'Bedevilled' is, for the most part, gorgeous – even if it does exhibit some issues that keep it from moving into the flawless category. Clarity and contrast are both very strong, especially early on in Seoul, but the picture does not falter when the backdrop is changed to the rural, agrarian setting of Moo-do.
Some of the scenes look a little washed out by the stark, blinding rays of the sun, but considering the role the sun plays in the film, and the otherwise well-calculated direction of the cinematography, it's a good bet that this was deliberate. Besides, the daylight scenes are still filled with remarkable clarity, depth and fine detail that manages to capture the lush island landscape, and its inhabitants in all their vivid glory.
If there were a complaint, it would be the tendency for some banding to be present in the darker scenes where the gray to black transition notoriously harbors such issues. There is also an appearance of some crush in these dark scenes that, though noticeable, is thankfully intermittent. While these issues can be somewhat distracting in this case, especially considering the image elsewhere is mostly pristine, it's not a deal breaker in regards to the overall quality of the disc. It is, however, a shame that the mere act of turning off the lights would keep the disc from bordering on perfect.
Thankfully, there is no English dub for 'Bedevilled,' so the viewer is left with the choice of a Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track or a simple Korean Dolby Digital Stereo track. Naturally, the lossless track was chosen in regards to this review, and it certainly didn't disappoint.
This is not a film that relies heavily on sound effects, but still manages to provide a totally immersive experience for the viewer. Dialogue is crisp and clear (which should be considered a must, even if you rely on subtitles) and is handled mostly by the center channel with the occasional segue into the rear speakers for effect. Largely, directionality and imaging work very well, moving the viewer seamlessly between scenes and utilizing the various channels at the mix's disposal to enhance the chaotic nature of the film toward its climax.
The film's score is also well represented by the lossless track. Playing a key role in the many of the later scenes, the score punctuates the drama by heightening tension without manhandling the dialogue or any of the more subtle sound effects. Mostly pushed through the front channels, it does, on occasion bleed into the rear speakers, but that seems only to add to the immersive qualities of the mix. Overall, audio here is magnificent, and should please anyone listening.
The supplements on 'Bedevilled' are a little disappointingg.
Films that have something to say, and choose to do so for the purpose of making a point normally utilize a more didactic tone that is too off-putting to be enjoyed as anything other than a social studies lesson. In that regard, 'Bedevilled' is far from a mere moralizing endeavor. It is as entertaining and engaging as it is intelligent and heartbreaking. The mix of calculated menace that suddenly becomes a torrent of vividly bloody mayhem is as convincing and compelling as anything that the Korean film industry has produced in years. In that regard, 'Bedevilled' should be held in the same esteem as 'Oldboy' and 'I Saw the Devil.' By now, many folks who are fans of Korean cinema have likely already seen this film, but unless they plunked down for the import, 'Bedevilled' hasn't been available on Blu-ray in the U.S. Though it's short on extras, the impressive high-definition picture and sound will certainly make this a must own for fans. Recommended.