Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bedevilled: Girl Gone Wild

Once upon a time, "hysteria" was an actual medical diagnosis applied to women. Symptoms included moodiness, irritability, pervasive dissatisfaction with day-to-day life, and pretty much anything else you might expect from a group of people who had been systematically marginalized and disenfranchised by a culture they helped to build. That there were similar disorders attributed to slaves should come as no surprise. It's the product of a culture so blinkered to its own crimes that it assumes any dissatisfaction with the status quo is actual madness. And it's a self-fulfilling prophecy at that. Keep someone under your heel long enough and ignore all the warning signs, and you create a ticking time bomb.

Bedevilled is a loosely sketched tragedy about one such time bomb and all of its fallout.

It's the story of childhood friends Hae-won and Bok-nam. Hae-won works at a bank in Seoul, and Bok-nam lives on isolated, rural Moo-do Island with a handful of other people. Hae-won spent a summer visiting her grandparents on the island when she was young, and she and Bok-nam became friends. Something happened that summer, though, and though Bok-nam has spent years writing to Hae-won, Hae-won won't respond to her letters. In fact, Hae-won has grown up into a selfish, uncaring soul. We meet her as she's driving through the streets of Seoul, when a young woman fleeing two would-be assailants begs Hae-won for help, only to have a car window rolled up in her face. This same generosity of spirit lands her in trouble at work, and between that and a run-in with the two assailants at a police station, Hae-won decides to take some time off and visit Bok-nam.

Time on the island hasn't been kind to Bok-nam. She's married to a drunken brute who beats her and screws hookers brought from the mainland while she sits outside and listens. She works backbreaking hours in the fields and has a brother-in-law who rapes her while her husband and daughter are out on fishing trips. Nothing she does is ever good enough for anyone else on the island, the population of which consists pretty much of her husband's family. When Hae-won comes back to the island, it throws Bok-nam's sad situation into sharp relief, and what should have been a vacation turns into a reckoning as dissatisfaction with what she has and denial of what she wants curdles into increasingly uglier shapes. As the story marches to the inevitable moment when the ticking stops and the explosion starts, details about Bok-nam's life and her summer with Hae-won unfold, and pretty much everyone ends up getting a guilty verdict.

With the combination of increasingly dire circumstances grinding one woman to powder and a world inhabited almost entirely by men who are predators and women who are at best passive and at worse actively supportive of their abuses, the whole story sort of feels like a Lars von Trier film by way of South Korea - it's the bastard son of Dancer in the Dark and Dogville with less critical detachment and a lot more blood. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's missing a lot of the tension and narrative coherence that I think you need to tell this sort of story with the impact it deserves. There's definitely a feeling that everything has, is, and will continue to go wrong for Bok-nam, and that her largely unsympathetic world is closing in around her. But it does so at such a leisurely pace that a large part of the tension and urgency is lost, and Hae-won drifts in and out of the story enough that it's tough to really get a sense of why she is like she is - you get the sense that it's somehow tied to the events of their youth, but it's only alluded to in a way that makes it more confusing than anything else. Each woman gets enough attention that you expect there to be some revelation, some connection between them that shaped their lives in two very different ways, but if there is, it's as vague and desultory as everything else. If it's their story, we leave it knowing even less than when we went in. 

Moreover, the oppressiveness of Bok-nam's life is drawn sharply - the men of the island take what they want with little regard to what is right or proper, and the women turn a blind eye for the sake of tradition and their own self-preservation, happy for Bok-nam to be a scapegoat - but her breaking point feels less hysteric than resigned, not a break or snap or explosion as much as a crumbling. As she finally lashes out against a lifetime of abuse, Bok-nam seems less liberated than exhausted, the fuel that kept her alive for years being burned twice as fast, until all that is left is the bleeding wreck of a woman, crying in the arms of the closest thing she ever had to a friend. She almost seemed more alive under the yoke of the island, and that's more disturbing than anything else in the movie.

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