It’s rare that a film stays with you, but after seeing Bedevilled, I can’t get it out of my head. Korean filmmakers are one of the greatest storytellers of revenge films, such as Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I Saw the Devil, Mother, The Man From Nowhere, and all of them are incredible. It’s quite amazing that they still continue to keep the genre fresh.
The film opens with a young woman from Seoul, Hae-won, as she has to testify against a crime that she witnessed. But she does not point out the victims, despite knowing who they are. Later, she gets laid off from her job, and decides to visit the island she had been to as a child with her grandfather.
The remoteness of the island is oppressive, they have no technology or modern conveniences, they are truly disconnected from the real world. You need permission to leave the island on the boat that comes every so often. But the island locale is not the most frightening part of the film. In what is often quite difficult to watch, there is a frightening misogynistic culture that the island is built on.
This is when the story shifts to the life of Kim Bok-nam, a childhood friend who remained living on the island. Hae-won finds that her friend is suffering at the hands of incredibly violent abuse, both physically and mentally, by her husband.
The social makeup of the island markedly changed when a storm took the lives of many of the older men, there seems to be only one older one left. We learn that Kim has been passed around sexually with all the younger men, so she does not know who the father of her daughter is. Her current husband not only horrifically abuses her, but also starts to sexually abuse his nine-year old daughter. The daughter puts on makeup, mimicking the prostitute that visits him in order to get her daddy to ‘love her’ that same way.
What is so terrifying about the abuse is that it is not at all behind closed doors. It is out in the openly, freely and everywhere Kim goes. The men force themselves on the young women anytime they can, groping them, looking up their skirt. This has been going on since they were children, as we see in a flashback.
But this is not just about men vs. women, the older generation of women also proudly perpetuate the misogynistic culture as well. Saying things such as “Girls are happiest with a dick in their mouth”. Not only the misogyny, but the abuse as well! They cheer when Kim’s husband beats her, wanting him to “put that bitch in her place”.
The turning point of the film comes at the death of Kim’s daughter. After being dragged away from trying to escape on the boat to Seoul, everyone stands idly by as Kim’s husband violently beats her and accidentally kills her daughter. We also see that Hae-won stood by as well.
Kim enters a deep state of depression, and after working in the fields and “staring at the sun until it spoke to me” she breaks down and goes on a violent rampage, killing all on the island.
The ending may leave some with mixed feelings. We want Kim to succeed and fully escape for a better life, but we do not get that. The bond between the two friends ends tragically as they play the flute together one last time, as they had when they were children. It’s more of a bonding over things past, before innocence was shattered, than a reconciliation or act of forgiveness on Kim’s part.
The film ends with Hae-won finally able to point out those who did the crime. She tired to take a step to not be an innocent bystander as she had been on the island, but she will live with always knowing it was too late. Hae-won did not stand up for her friend when she good, she stood idly by like the rest of the islanders. She is just as bad at them for letting the abuse and violence continue.
The tranquility of the absolutely gorgeous island juxtapositions with the violence and abuse that is perpetuated by everyone in the environment. That is what is truly terrifying about this movie. It’s not the graphic violence. It’s how the abuse is so casual, how apart of everyday life it was.
Jang Chul-soo’s Bedevilled adds to the exceptional Korean revenge film canon. Check it out on Netflix!