Bedevilled

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At the turn of the century and a few years before, J-Horror exploded thanks to a number of successful films, and that success soon carried over and continued on Western shores. A number of classics emerged which took the ingredients of J-Horror, the slow-burning tension and climactic terror, while a huge number of imitators eventually diluted and drained the market. South Korea tried its hand too, coming up with a sizable number of hits, but somewhere along the way, and I’m not sure of the cultural reasons for this, K-horror emerged as something entirely separate, losing much of the supernatural and focusing instead of real human fears and terrors – kidnap, revenge, loss, guilt, violence, the collapse of the self. With obvious masterpieces such as Kim’s revenge trilogy, to lesser known films such as … K-horror has since transcended J-horror as the premium source of thrills in our bloody little world, and with Bedevilled you have as fine an example as you could ever hope for in your darkest dreams.

Ji Sung Won stars as Hae Won, a woman who appears to be fatigued, disillusioned, and stressed by city life in Seoul, decides to return to the island of her childhood after receiving numerous letters from her old friend Bok Nam. Bok Nam has remained on the island all of her life, and in parallel to Hae Won, wants an escape. The two women share some similarities at the start of the film, but it quickly becomes apparent that the women and their situations are entirely different. Bok Nam has led an extremely harsh life, being essentially a slave to everyone on the island and a figure of sexual, verbal, and physical abuse to almost everyone around her. Her husband and his friends are cruel and uncaring, and he seems to be taking an interest in their daughter which is the final straw which forces Bok Nam to try to make her escape from this hell, through Hae Won. Hae Won however, is shown to be incredibly passive and while she does not get involved in any of the abuse (though we see in flashbacks that she is far from innocent), she does nothing to prevent it even when given multiple opportunities. Bok Nam is shown to be a loving, sympathetic person, and thanks to an incredible performance by Seo Yeung Hee, we are even more profoundly impacted by what happens to her. Her performance conveys many emotions and she is extremely convincing as both powerless victim, hopeful innocent, and avenging angel. It’s a rare and astonishing performance. While more restrained, Ji Sung Won as Hae Won gives a very good performance as a selfish, hateful character whose redemption is extremely questionable – you will despise this character, you will despise the end of the film, but as unremittingly grim as it is, it is successful due to the performances of the two leads.

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Director Jang Cheol Soo’s debut is cold, ambiguous, and undeniably powerful – there is a lot of beauty here, in the cinematography, in smaller moments, but once the film becomes washed in gore we are already feeling filthy and guilty as a powerless bystander. I like how the film first makes us think that Hae Won is going to be the focus, but quickly discards her as we drop into a nightmare. When tragedy strikes, it is shocking, inevitable, and few would feel that Bok Nam’s actions are not justified. It’s difficult to discuss the finer points of the movie without uncovering spoilers – it’s a similar film in tone to Oldboy etc, a thought-provoking revenge thriller where the good guys can never win in a world that wants to slowly beat them to death. This is a must watch for fans of Asian cinema, and really deserves to be seen by all movie fans.

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Have you seen Bedevilled? How do you think it fares against similar Asian thrillers and what steps do you think Hollywood could take to emulate the success of these Eastern movies rather than simply remaking them? Let us know in the comments!

The Isle

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Beautifully shot horror films are almost a rarity these days, but when one comes along the cinematography unusually seems to go hand in hand with critical acclaim, from The Shining to A Tale Of Two Sisters to Let The Right One In there is something unnerving about merging the beautiful with the grim and it is a combination which often leads to a brilliant final product. The Isle follows this grand tradition – it has moments of stunning beauty contrasted with gut-churning (literally) scenes of ugly carnage. It doesn’t quite match the quality of those aforementioned examples, but for the curious horror fan its worth dipping your toe in to test the depth.

The Isle is essentially a thriller based around the various relationships of troubled people. Set in a beautifully shot lake where the mute Hee Jin runs some sort of fishing business, she spends her days looking after her patrons who spend days on the lake fishing, and living in man made islands and huts spread over the water. Her past is enigmatic, but there are hints at darkness as she brings in prostitutes to look after her customers, and deals with some shady characters. One such character Hyun-Shik enters the resort and Hee-jin takes an obsessive interest in him. Soon we have suicide attempts via the swallowing of fish hooks, murder, and sexual violence as the two characters become more embroiled in each other’s lives.

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A warning for sensitive viewers may be required, as some of the notorious fish hook scenes are fairly tough – I wouldn’t call them gory, but there is a visceral power to the acting, and it all looks very real. Actually real is some violence to animals, including frogs and fish. Beyond the violence, there is a coldness which fans of Kim-Ki-duk’s films will be familiar with. The films I’ve seen by him all deal with fractured relationships which lead to horrific violence, and although there is a taut emotional grip, there is still a detached coldness which usually leaves the viewer numb. The Isle leaves much to the imagination, with a bare plot and sparse dialogue – personally I felt too distant from the action to either be affected or totally engaged by them, though it was nevertheless interesting. Rather than a participant, I felt like a fisherman on one of the distant floating islands, squinting through the mist at what was going on at the other side of the lake. It’s an unusual one to recommend – horror fans will likely be bored by the long phases between violence or action, while drama lovers will be put off by said violence. One for the more broader minded film fan who has an interest in Asian cinema or in the career of Kim-Ki-duk.

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Let us know in the comments if you have seen The Isle and what you made of it!

Pieta

*Originally reviewed in 2014 based on a free copy provided by Amazon – buy it here!

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As a big Asian movie fan, this was one I was looking forward to. However, as is often the case with, some may say, niche films, taglines and blurbs surrounding the movie are sensationalist and prone to hyperbole. I’d heard and read that this was shocking, brutal, emotionally draining, and bleak, but really only one of those terms is fully accurate, while the other three will depend on the viewer – those used to such niche films will likely not be shocked, horrified, or drained. The movie is bleak though, a dark story focusing on scum and the exploited, and there isn’t really a glimpse of light or hope throughout. It is however well made, well acted, and while I wouldn’t say there were many surprises, it did keep me thoroughly engaged throughout, and eager to see how it all ended.

The film follows a thuggish orphan who preys on the weak in his role as a debt collector. His apathy and underlying rage lead him to violence towards those who cannot pay him, and a complete lack of care for his horrible actions. Out of nowhere, a woman claiming to be his mother shows up, full of apologies, and with an eerily apathetic determination to get into his life. There isn’t much more to say about what follows – there is bonding, and the repeated recurrences of past evils, and a strong conclusion. It is difficult to feel sympathy towards any of the characters here, and I’m not sure if it was the director’s intent to ever let us contemplate feeling sympathy – maybe only the sympathy a normal ‘good’ person would be expected to feel towards someone, even a monster, who is in pain. You will likely be conflicted, but maybe that will be more down to the confused plotting and intent rather than the issues at work. It is brilliantly cold, feels very authentic, and is a brooding, dank, descent into a seedy underworld of revenge, held together by a couple of strong leading performances.

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Have you seen Pieta? Where does it rank among South Korea’s other recent revenge thrillers? Let us know in the comments!

A Hard Day – DVD Review

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You know, I was in two minds for a large part of the movie over whether I could really say that I enjoyed it, given that the main character and his pals are all scumbags. As things progress though, you can’t help but cheer for the protagonist as his situation gets steadily worse and more ridiculous. A likable performance by Lee-Sun Kyun as the resourceful anti-hero certainly helps matters, so try not to be turned off by the events of the opening 30 minutes or so, though by that point you should be invested and intrigued enough by the plot to want to continue.

The story follows an unusually difficult day in the life of a shady Detective – not only has he split from his wife and is being investigated by Internal Affairs for bribes and embezzlement, but he kills someone whilst speeding home to his mother’s funeral. It’s at this point that you may need to suspend some believability – it shouldn’t have been too difficult for him to wave down the approaching cop car and say that the person stepped out in front of him – and a quick examination of the body would have unveiled one of the later twists in the movie. Geon-Soo though decides to cover up the event, but when it turns out that the corpse was a wanted criminal, his own team begins to investigate, and he receives calls from someone claiming to have witnessed the whole thing.

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A well constructed thriller, the film is racked with tension, and doesn’t feel rushed. Almost the first half of the film is taken up with with Geon-Soo’s attempts to cover up his crime, and the second half being an attempt to find out who the mysterious caller is in order to protect himself and his family. As many reviewers have already outlined, there is a refreshing amount of humour, though it is more subtle than on the nose, instead relying on the audience awareness of how absurd events are becoming. A few set-pieces are played out well – the body-hiding in the funeral parlor, the confrontation on the bridge while a bomb ticks down, and the apartment fight scene being the prime examples. It’s the mark of a director in complete control of his craft, which is impressive given that this is only his second directing credit. Also refreshing in the end, is how the central character and his friends are not typical Hitchcock characters, caught up in a crime they happened to stumble upon, but rather they are dirty cops always looking for a quick buck and making highly questionable decisions. This leads to some witty dialogue and of course the increasingly pressurized situation Geon-Soo makes for himself. While most of the cast get only minor supporting roles, each is believable, either as an innocent, bewildered (by Geon-Soo’s odd behaviour) family member or bystander, or as as cop on the merge of being a crook. The two biggest roles, of Geon-Soo and of Detective Choi are played well, with one verging between the typical smooth talking detective and total breakdown, and the other being a commanding, almost otherworldly wicked presence, loving the power he wields.

In summary, it’s another strong thriller from South Korea, so for any fans of Asian Cinema, or diehard crime thriller loves, this is definitely one to try. There isn’t a whole lot of action, and it doesn’t have the John Woo or Tarantino feel which the DVD cover claims, but is distinct in its own way, with plenty of tension, the odd chase and fight, and a nice amount of humour thrown into the mix.

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Have you seen A Hard Day? Where would you rank it among recent Korean thrillers? Let us know in the comments!

A Tale Of Two Sisters

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Described as the ‘most frightening film since Ring’ and a mix of psychological horror, ghost story and drama, A Tale of Two Sisters is a truly complex film with great depth, good performances, technological perfection, and a few scares. In truth it is vastly different from Ringu, but naturally with every Asian Horror movie featuring a long-haired, scary looking girl comparisons will be made. True, Ringu is the master, but this is of an entirely different breed. If you are a fan of Ringu, Asian horror movies in general then this is definitely one to see before the Hollywood remake, but be warned- it is difficult the first time round, and will likely not be what you expected.

The film begins in a psychiatric hospital, a doctor tries to get a young girl, Soo-Yeun to explain what has happened in her past. We then apparently flash back and meet two sisters, Soo-yeun and Soo-mi, their father and step-mum. The sisters are very close, but they have no respect for their father, and hate their step-mum. We do not know why. Soo-mi is quieter, Soo-yeun is protective of her and will not let any harm come to her. They have returned from a mental hospital but we do not know why. There is a coldness in the house, and a lack of understanding. The father seems passive, unable to understand his kids or relate to his partner, while the step-mum is very strange, ranging from cruel to hysterically happy. Soon strange things begin to happen in the house, noises, frightening ghosts appear, or perhaps they are hallucinations. The whole house is affected, but we do not know if it an evil power in the house, the threatening demeanour of the step-mum, or if it is all just a mirage. The parents cannot stand the behaviour of the kids anymore, and a confrontation ensues where we finally learn the startling, emotional truth.

For the majority of the film, the viewer will have little idea as to what is going on. Unfortunately this does not always work for the best- true the plot keeps us guessing, but there are perhaps too many twists to confuse us. This is deliberate of course, and we get a true sense of the madness which can come from guilt and anger, although it may be too overwhelming for some. This is a pity as it is a very good film, and must be watched right to the end before any questions are really answered. However, if you enjoy many twists and being kept in a loop then few films are better than this. Admittedly some, including myself will be taken in by the tag-line, by other reviews, and will expect another terrifying time. However, the scary Ringu/Ju-on style scares are few, and the distance between them is long, ensuring frustration for those who want to be scared. When they come though they are intense, and will get the hairs on your arms reaching for the sky. Those are the only complaints I can have with the film, and for a fan of clever films they are minor.

The film’s depth is unquestionable, amazing when considering it was based on a simple, popular Korean folk tale. We do not know what will happen next, or why, and we are left thinking about it for a long time after it is over. Luckily the DVD has much explanatory documentaries and interviews which will help. The music is extremely good, mixing the noises which worked to such great effect in Ringu, with touching string numbers to add to the emotional impact. The camera-work is breathtaking, with many innovative angles which will have you on edge, and the tension created is admirable. The editing is deserving of much respect as we get many quick flashbacks, false ones and true ones to past events which may or may not have happened in the way they are shown. The film looked beautiful, and the scenery is haunting. Lastly, the performances by the small cast are each excellent. Geon-yeung Mun is impressive as Soo-yeon, painfully showing the madness she feels. Kap-su Kim as the father is vacant and cold, seems to have lost any emotions he once had, and tired by all around him. Su-jeong Lim as Soo-mi is very sympathetic, and although she has little to say, conveys everything with her eyes well. The stand-out though is Jung-ah Yum as the step-mum, her wildly changing face and actions are astounding and she is genuinely creepy. We are never certain of how she will act, but know that every second she is on screen is a marvel. To summarise, definitely see this if you are a fan of Asain movies as it is a masterpiece of depth and direction, but there are more immediately scary films out there in the same vein. This will have a lasting effect on you though. This is near perfect thriller, and an above average horror.

This special edition has tonnes of extra features, from deleted scenes, to interviews with the cast, and an in depth documentary with the director. These all prove interesting after watching the film, and offer some explaination to the events of the film and to the film making process. If only all DVDs were presented like this…

Feel free to comment- add your thoughts on my review or more importantly on the film- did you enjoy it? Did you hate it? Meh?