The American Film Institute’s AFI Fest gets under way here in Hollywood this Friday, featuring classic programming curated by Guest Artistic Director David Lynch (including Rear Window, Sunset Boulevard, Lolita, Mon Oncle, Hour of the Wolf and, of course, Eraserhead) and a rich lineup of high-profile international films and under-the-radar titles from these and foreign shores. The gala premieres include Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, featuring acclaimed performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, Kevin Spacey in the late George Hickenlooper’s docudrama Casino Jack and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech.
But outside the big ticket items, there are lots of international oddities and items of interest on the roster. The ones I’m most interested in are Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, Werner Herzog’s 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Jean-luc Godard’s Film Soicialism, Guillem Morales’ Julia’s Eyes, Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage, Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme D’or winner Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall His Past Lives. The good news: the ticckets are free! The bad news: They’ve been available since October 28 and most shows are already sold out. The semi-good news: the AFI Film fest office is releasing extra tickets for some shows at 10:00 a.m. on the morning of the screening of each film, so if there’s something you’re interested in, you’ll be in line like me. (The AFI Film Fest office is located on the third floor of the Highland and Hollywood complex directly across from the Chinese 6 Theaters.)
This year I’ve been lucky enough to see two of the festival’s featured attractions in advance, thanks to the courtesy of Doug Cummings, who heads up the efforts on the AFI Fest website. Doug asked me if I’d be interested in writing for the festival, and of course I was flattered and said yes. The films I was assigned were fascinating in different ways, one an unqualified, complicated success, the other a less-than-successful horror film with ambitions beyond its gory means. Tonight and tomorrow I will feature reviews of both films, Jang Choel-soo’s Bedevilled and Shlomi Eldar’s Precious Life, and the review of the Eldar documentary will also be published tomorrow on the AFI Fest web site. Thanks to Doug for making some of the festival available to me in advance and for allowing me the opportunity to talk about the movies and the fest as part of this weekend’s celebration of international cinema.
BEDEVILLED Jang Cheol-soo (35mm; 115 min.)
Screens Sunday, November 7, at the Mann’s Chinese 3
**** THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS ****
Hae-won (Ji Sung-won), a young bank executive, is witness to a street assault on a young woman in Seoul. From the safety of her car she sees the bloodied face of the woman begging for help, as well as at least one of her attackers, but she refuses to help and is later called in to identify the attackers when they are arrested. The stress of the situation (the assailants know who she is), combined with her own callous behavior on the job, prompts a vacation to an island off the coast of Korea where as a girl she spent time with her grandfather. But when she arrives on the island, she finds a brutal system in place where her now-grown childhood friend Bok-nam (Seo Yeong-hee) lives as a virtual slave to her violent husband, her husband’s sexually assaultive brother, and a strange matriarchy of women who demand her constant labor and dish out humiliation to her at every turn. As the woman’s situation becomes ever more dire, one begins to wonder much horror Bok-nam can possibly endure before either Hae-won steps forward or Bok-nam herself snaps into a violent frenzy of her own.
At first director Jang appears to be after some sort of comparative cultural critique of the suspicions urban and rural Koreans hold for each other—it is clear enough that patriarchal oppression and gender-based prejudice is perhaps as potent in the microcosmic island society (nine people, three of which are men) as in modernized Seoul. But when the plot unfolds more in the direction of an examination of gender relations, particularly the debasement of domestic violence, Jang’s strategy becomes far more simplistic all the while it wobbles on simple dramatic terms. Upon arriving on the island, Hae-won becomes a disruptive force of sorts, but an annoyingly passive one. She does little more than observe the various trials forced upon her friend, and often disappears during long stretches of the story which are increasingly devoted to capturing in lurid detail the minutiae of the vile abuse Bak-won endures with decreasing inner strength. Hae-won inspires suspicion from the old women who justify and protect the men in their barbaric behavior, but little else. At times I wondered where on this tiny island Hae-won might have disappeared to that it takes her so long to discover the true ghastly nature of what it is her friend is experiencing in her daily life.
Ji’s performance is so remote, however, that even when she gazes directly upon the bloody consequences very little empathy registers. This is, of course, in keeping with the character’s attitude which is familiar from the beginning of the film, but it serves to keep the audience at a distance from her as she becomes a more traditional “final girl” in the movie’s gruesome finale. Hae-won does strike up a sympathetic friendship with Bok-nam’s 10-year-old daughter, but even the child’s fate does little to stir the emotions of the audience’s alienated stand-in. By this point in the movie the audience should have much more sympathy for Bok-nam as she slips into a defensive madness, finally standing up for herself against the hardened faces and glassy-eyed stares of this “family” of harridans and brutes who have made her life such a hell, and very few will not feel some release in her lashing out at them. (Seo’s performance is certainly a sympathetic one, an acutely modulated descent from defensive innocence to despair and beyond.)
Jang banks on this release of audience empathy, but he misjudges the degree to which we want to revel in the bloodbath Bok-nam unleashes in her own defense. The first three or four of her victims are folks who, vile though they may be, are not responsible for any horrors or violence we’ve actually seen directed at her, yet their murders are carried out (by Bok-nam) and filmed (by Jang) coolly, efficaciously, with little sympathy or feeling. This strategy effectively articulates the degree to which Bok-nam has slipped away, but it also makes us turn away from her slightly even as it prepares us for even greater, more operatic horrors to come. Jang’s condemnation of domestic violence comes attached to a far-too-hearty reveling in the doling out of bloody justice, and his take on gender relations boils down to a startling misanthropy. Near the end, Bok-nam reacts to a simple altruistic gesture by wondering aloud, “There are kind people?” It’s a rhetorical question, and one wishes the director wasn’t posing it as guilelessly as this brutalized character does. By the time the movie boils down to its conclusion, which pits Bok-nam and Hae-won against each other in a clipped and rather badly staged showdown (compared to the relative elegance and clever use of the wide-screen frame that has come before), thoughts of gender and cultural critique have vanished amidst the screams and the arterial spray that is the real fascination of this disappointing and unpleasant movie.