Review: ‘Bedevilled’

Too arty for K-horror buffs and too grisly and nonsensical for world-cinema aficionados.

A young mother understandably wants to get off a remote island filled with violent and misogynistic miscreants and slave-driving old hags in “Bedevilled,” a confused genre hodgepodge that marks the feature debut of Kim Ki-duk’s former assistant director Jang Cheol-soo. Part limpid study of city-country contrasts, part one-sickle-kills-all revenge fantasy, Jang’s film drifts from one genre to another without ever fully coming into its own. Too arty for K-horror buffs and too grisly and nonsensical for world-cinema aficionados, “Bedevilled” will likely remain stuck in limbo beyond the fest circuit.

Hae-won (Ji Sung-won, haughty), a frigid Seoul bank employee with lily-white skin and a designer haircut, goes back to the isle of her youth after a big-city meltdown caused by the threat of violence. But things are hardly more idyllic there; her childhood friend Bok-nam (Seo Young-hee, who was more nuanced in “The Chaser”) is being verbally and physically abused by her two-timing hubby (Park Jeong-hak, evilly one-note). The eternally disheveled-looking and bronze-colored wench, who seems to be the only woman in her age group in the small community, is also abused by other locals and forced by a small gang of elderly women to do hard labor in the fields.

When Bok-nam’s umpteenth attempt to escape the island with her young daughter (Lee Ji-eun-I) results in tragedy, the woman finally snaps, unleashing all her demons — while at the same time reducing the already passive Hae-won even more to just a bewildered bystander.

Tyro helmer Jang and screenwriter Choi Gwan-young deftly set up the contrasts and similarities between Seoul and the remote island in the pic’s calm-before-the-storm first half, suggesting that just because people are surrounded by skyscrapers and designer furniture doesn’t mean that senseless violence isn’t lurking just around the corner. But pic’s insight doesn’t go much beyond that — or logically connect to what follows.

Though Bok-nam is clearly a woman with a lot of grievances, her behavior is not of the triumphant revenge-fantasy kind, leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether she’s finally dealing out everyone’s just deserts or whether her past sufferings have turned her into a lunatic. Pic’s muddled attitude toward women and their relationships with members of both sexes is rendered even more unintelligible by several scenes (including some unnecessary flashbacks) that hint at a Sapphic attraction between the two leads.

“Bedevilled’s” violent second half finds several new uses for a sickle and is indeed gory, though never particularly inventive — no fish hooks a la Kim’s notorious “The Isle.” Because Bok-nam’s motivation is hard to read and all the island’s other inhabitants are walking cliches, the scenes of butchery are reduced to meaningless genre killings that merely protract the pic’s already long running time. Coda involving the two femme protags at a police station further adds to the confusion.

Technically, widescreen pic is solid.

Bedevilled

South Korea

Production

A Boston Investments Co. presentation of a Filma Pictures, Tori Pictures production. (International sales, Finecut, Seoul.) Produced by Park Kuy-young. Executive producers, Kim Harry H.W., Han Man-taeg, Jung Hyun. Co-producer, Jang Seok-bin. Directed by Jang Cheol-soo. Screenplay, Choi Gwan-young.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, 35mm-to-HD), Kim Gi-tae; editor, Kim Mi-joo; music, Kim Tae-seong; production designer, Sihm Jeom-hui. Reviewed at Elysee Lincoln, Paris, May 6, 2010. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Critics' Week.) Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Seo Young-hee, Ji Sung-won, Min-ho Hwang, Min Je, Lee Ji-eun-I, Park Jeong-hak.

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