I’m so sorry I haven’t been updating this blog! Real life got the best of me – I applied to the spring semester at a local college, got some of my real life in order, and actually got out of the house a bit, which are all good things, but rather distracting from angry review blogging.
- – -
[Trigger warning: Rape, abuse]
It’s no secret how much I dislike rape-revenge flicks. For one thing, they’re nearly always brought to us by male writers and directors, who, while still being potential victims of sexual assault, are statistically less likely to encounter it, and don’t live with the same constant fear of rape that women are practically brought up with. A man walking down the street at night may fear getting mugged and having his wallet stolen, but chances are he doesn’t have the same gut fear instilled by society that puts women on edge whenever they walk alone, whenever a man seems to be following them for too long, whenever there are no witnesses around to testify their innocence and that they didn’t “bring it on themselves” in the event that they’re assaulted. For another thing, it plays into the male writer’s idea that a woman can only be strong if she’s “broken” first, and generally, by broken, they mean a survivor of sexual assault. This isn’t only a narrative device used in this particular genre, but one that lazy, generally male writers tend to use if they want to give a female character a “reason” for her badassery. Because women can’t be strong characters without being dehumanized and broken down first, but who’s ever heard of a strong male character whose characterization can entirely be traced back to sexual assault?
Anyway. That little rant aside, I generally despise the rape-revenge trope. But sometimes a movie comes along that uses that trope in such a human, well-done way that I don’t even notice that the story is, at its core, that same plotline I claim to hate until after the credits roll. Bedevilled, directed by Chul Soo-Jang, is one such movie. Simplified, it’s a story about a victim of sexual assault exacting revenge on her abusers. But it also manages to be a discussion of patriarchal society and the inaction that allows it to continue to be perpetuated, that also has things to say about class issues and the relationships between women, and that’s what sets it apart from basic “woman kills her rapists” exploitation films.
Bedevilled opens with an intense scene of sexual assault, as a woman turns down a group of men’s advances, which provokes them to beat her and drag her offscreen. We know what’s going to happen to her, the movie doesn’t need to show it onscreen for shock value, and that makes it all the more terrifying. We then cut to bank employee Hae-won, who witnessed the assault take place, as the police ask her to identify the culprits and she refuses. She hasn’t got time to catch rapists – she’s too busy calling her co-worker and friend a slut, slapping her, or treating her customers in need coldly. Hae-won’s increasingly angry behavior gets her a temporary leave of absence from her job, and a call from an old friend leads her to decide to spend her vacation on the island where her deceased grandfather once lived, where she used to go as a child.
The residents of the island – very few, as it’s a small farming community of less than twenty people, and most of the island’s men have died at sea during a storm – are mostly inhospitable towards Hae-won, except for her childhood friend, Bok-nam. Bok-nam is entirely uneducated; she can’t read or write, she’s an orphan and the community’s sole hard-working laborer, and she’s never set foot off the island. She’s excited to see her friend again, not only because she likes Hae-won but because of what she represents: a chance for her or at least her young daughter, Yeonhee, to escape from their isolated life and leave with Hae-won for Seoul.
For good reason. Bok-nam’s life is heartbreaking and horrific. She’s been abused by nearly every member of the community since childhood, and those who haven’t directly participated, like the stone-cold “Auntie” who serves as the matriarch of the island, have turned a blind eye to her suffering, claiming that it’s for her own good or she deserves it. Her daughter is the light of her life, but she doesn’t even know who the father is – all the men of the island have been raping her since she was young. Her husband physically abuses her and makes no secret of hiring a prostitute to come to the island and service him, even while Bok-nam is right outside the room. Her husband’s brother regularly sexually assaults her and he does nothing to stop this. Bok-nam tries her hardest to ensure that her daughter’s life will be better than hers, wanting to send her to school so she can make a better life for herself, but the women of the island insist that girls don’t need education.
Hae-won refuses to believe or do anything to help Bok-nam, turning a blind eye – whether subconsciously or by her own choice – to the obviously toxic society on the island, and around her, things just get worse and worse, until tragedy strikes Bok-nam and the poor girl has no chance but to crack. And it’s almost a relief when she does. The supporting characters that surround her are so vile – almost exaggeratedly so, at times – that we’re rooting for them to meet a painful end long before Bok-nam takes her sickle in hand. It’s as cathartic for the viewer as it is for Bok-nam when the body count starts rising.
From what I’ve heard, Yeong-hie Seo, who plays Bok-nam (and also appeared in the excellent The Chaser, which I reviewed here before) received multiple awards in Korea for her performance – and deservedly so. She’s utterly heartbreaking, and one of the best performances I’ve seen in a film from any country in a long time. In less skilled hands, Bok-nam could just be a caricature of a victim, someone we felt bad for only because of her lot in life and the abuse she suffers, and not also because she seems like such a real person. Every moment that she’s on screen is acted to absolute perfection, and her more peaceful scenes with her friend Hae-won and her beloved daughter are incredibly endearing.
With the heavy subject material and the sheer amount of sadness that is Bok-nam’s life, this film could easily have been dramatic and overwrought. But with the exception of a few moments with the women of the island that caused me to pause and wonder if any living, breathing human being could really be that callous and uncaring, it’s never bogged down into melodrama-porn, sob-story territory. And, the thing I find most interesting about it – one of the big questions it brings up is how much at fault “Auntie” and the women who follow along with her are for Bok-nam’s tragic situation. From the opening scene with Hae-won witnessing the attack on and possibly rape of another young woman and not speaking up about it, to the reveal that what Bok-nam’s suffered through is not only ignored but encouraged by the other women on the island, the silence of other women in the face of violence, especially sexual violence. The blame for what happens to the women in this movie falls mainly on the men, but it’s made clear that the people who sit back and watch it happen are also perpetuating this rape culture. (However, it’s made clear that this is also the fault of oppressors, not the oppressed – before her death, Auntie makes allusions to having shared some experiences with Hae-won, and it’s likely that the women been told that “this is how things are supposed to be” that they’ve adapted that mentality to survive.) In the narrative of the film itself, the men are the real villains, but to most female viewers, the women, including Hae-won, will seem the cruelest and most villainous of the cast, and it’s that which makes this more than a simple rape-and-revenge exploitation piece.
Bedevilled is definitely a film that will stick with me for a long time, and should, with any viewer. It’s not a slasher you can walk away from with some chills and a mild fear of a masked killer hiding in your closet. It’s still a horror film, but one about real life horrors that, even if you haven’t experienced them first-hand, everyone has some experience with, some relation to, whether they’ve been the victims of abuse (even if it’s less severe than Bok-nam’s) or ever turned a blind eye to hints of it. It’s still scary, but not in the jump-and-scream fashion – in the way that will settle itself in you, the way you’ll never quite forget.