Men, Women and Hand-Scythes: Urbanoia and Gender in Yang Chul-soo’s Bedevilled

Getting even; Yeong-hie Seo and Seong-won Ji in Bedevilled (2010)

This post comes as part of the 2011 Korean Cinema Blogathon over at New Korean Cinema.

Yang Chul-soo’s Bedevilled (2010) features many of the tropes associated with the ‘urbanoia’ revenge film, the sub-genre of horror defined by Carol J. Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws in which a city dweller travels to a rural setting where what they take as the usual accepted rules of civilization are shown not to apply in their new, unfamiliar locale. The characters within such a narrative become metonyms for a wider conflict, and this pitting of the urban against the rural comes to carry associated economic, social and very often gender-based antagonisms. Whilst the themes in Bedevilled bear a similarity with those explored in the likes of The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman) (1978), what is significant is how, by dint of its two-protagonist structure, it is able to develop a more sophisticated city-country axis than its exploitation content might suggest.

The film’s initial focus is Hae-won, a clerk at a bank who we first encounter snapping at an elderly woman desperately pleading for a loan to pay for her house. Hae-won has earlier witnessed a violent assault, but at the police identification parade she refuses to finger the perpetrators for fear of reprisals. Returning to work, she coldly reproaches a colleague after she learns she has been more sympathetic to the woman seeking the loan, and then turns nastier when she makes a case of mistaken identity, after which she is told to take a forced vacation from work. She elects to take up an offer to visit old childhood friend Bok-nam on the remote island of Moo-do.

Bok-nam lives on the island with her young daughter Yeon-hee, husband Man-jong, brother-in-law and a small group of elders, mostly women. The initial excitement at visiting the exotic surrounds quickly disappears as Hae-won observes the daily cycle of abuse and oppression experienced by her childhood friend; beaten into submission, forced into gruelling manual labour by the elders, humiliated by her husband’s shameless and blatant philandering with prostitutes shipped in from the mainland, and nocturnally having to be the reluctant outlet for her primitive brother-in-law’s apparently insatiable sexual appetite.

The urbanoia film functions primarily by setting up an axis which exaggerates the differences between the city and the country, and to a certain extent Bedevilled is no different in this regard. In terms of the setting, the island of Moo-do is very obviously far removed from the neon-lit bustle of Seoul witnessed in the opening scene, an exoticism underlined by Hae-won’s inauguration by Bok-nam into both open-air laundry drying and alfresco bathing, underlining Hae-Won’s very evident status as the metaphorical fish out of water. The city is noisy, overcrowded but impersonal. The country folk, by contrast, have a sense of interdependence with each other, but also a concomitant paranoia fuelled by the self-interest of the group: the elders are shown to be willing to turn a blind eye to Man-jong’s crimes as long as they perpetuate their own interests, namely keeping on the island Bok-nam and Yeon-hee, who represent both their present and future enslaved workforce. Thus a kind of pre-industrial patriarchy is perpetuated on the island, one which appears to condone even incest and paedophilia, a familial dysfunction which is a familiar urbanoia convention. If the police are powerless in the city, then in the countryside it is their very absence which arouses fear in the urbanite.

The contrast between city and country is also highlighted by the two women and their outward signifiers: Hae-won’s fussily urbane image of pale skin, sophisticated hair and makeup, white dress and high heeled shoes are in plain contrast to Bok-nam’s earthly look of heavily-tanned skin, tousled hair and general sartorial scruffiness. If the images of the two women are shown to be hugely disparate, then so too are their physical and emotional characteristics. Thusfar, Hae-won has by-and-large been an aloof, insular character, emotionally cold and largely isolated from those around her; in comparison, Bok-nam is characterized as being friendly and warm-hearted. Hae-won carries herself in a stilted poise, while Bok-nam is flat-footed, sometimes animalistic in posture (in one scene her husband even chastises her for literally eating “like a pig”). This in part reflects her natural physical practicality, in contrast to Hae-won’s technical ineptitude as evidenced in her earlier débâcle when trying to escape after being trapped in the toilet cubicle; instead, she is shown engaging in the practised, schooled form of physical exertion of yoga which the more clumsy, unsophisticated Bok-nam comically fails to imitate, an echo of an earlier flashback which illustrated the young Hae-won’s superiority of the learned skill of playing the recorder.

This divide between the characters is also a typical configuration of the urbanoia film. The city-dweller, whether male or female, is symbolically gendered ‘female’ since their sedentary urban existence, removed from the more ‘manly’ tasks of farming and hunter-gathering, has effeminized them; by extension then the rural characters are symbolically gendered ‘male’, in this case the female Bok-nam (her later use of a bladed weapon to stab her oppressors with can be seen to take on an obvious Freudian connotation). Indeed, while Hae-won may be associated with outward signs of feminity – handbags, coiffured hair, high heels – she is shown to lead a largely asexual existence. Early on, she reprimands her work colleague for what she sees as her flirtatious behaviour with her seniors, significantly an event which occurs shortly after she is sexually humiliated by a group of thugs outside the police station. A flashback makes a suggestion of a childhood ‘crush’ on Bok-nam, though later on when Bok-nam attempts belatedly to reciprocate this in the present timeframe, Hae-won withdraws. If the city is then rendered ‘female’, so too is it a neutered femininity.

In spite of sharing many of its conventions, this dual protagonist setup provides the key differentiation between Bedevilled and the traditional urbanoia storyline. Instead of unquestioningly aligning our spectatorial viewpoint with the city-dweller, as in the majority of this type of film from Deliverance (1972) onwards, our sympathies here are divided. While Hae-won’s outward signifiers speak of familiarity which we are perhaps more likely to identify with, her coldness makes us emotionally aligned with the more responsive, emotive Bok-nam. Indeed, although Hae-won’s city lifestyle is ostensibly the more familiar to us, it speaks more of urban alienation than any positive view of urban life: her moodiness suggests she is liable to fall out with what friends she has, and given time off work she is shown spending it alone, whether a solitary figure at a restaurant or back at her apartment guzzling on cans of beer. She is reprimanded for routinely ignoring the letters for her stacking up in her mailbox, and apparently has no contact with her immediate family. If one compares the opening city sequences of Bedevilled with those of I Spit on Your Grave, in which we witness Jennifer Hills’ comfort with her urban existence, then we can see that here the view of city life is more ambivalent.

If life in the city is not entirely eulogised, then neither is the country entirely demonised. In the countryside there is at least some notion of family and community, even if arising from a sense of self-interested dependency; the elders are at least treated with a sense of due respect by their juniors, in marked contrast to Hae-won’s summary dismissal of the elderly woman she has to deal with at the bank office who seems to be little more than a pest in her eyes. Additionally, while the usual city-country dynamic traditionally divides quite clearly into a master-slave dynamic of economic domination and exploitation, there is little sense of it here; there is not the sense that modernity is encroaching on the island, save for the oddly modern juxtaposition of a mobile phone mast on the island, and indeed the fact Man-jong is able to afford to ship in prostitutes from the mainland (paying over the odds too) suggests an affluence.

In fact, as opposed to showing the disparity between the two women’s lives, what the setup encourages is the paralleling of their experiences as a whole. Whether in the country or the city, women are assaulted by men and the authorities appear helpless either to prevent it or to dispense punitive justice to the perpetrators. While Man-jong and his brother are evidence of rural cruelty and sexual dysfunction, they are little different to the thugs who carry out the film’s initial assault in Seoul and intimidate and sexually humiliate Hae-won afterwards (the visual coding is similar in both cases, Man-jong’s brother’s battered tracksuit equivalent to the city thugs’ sportswear). Women, whether economically independent like Hae-Won or physically independent like Bok-nam, are still forced to be emotionally isolated resigned victims in both societies.

Another consequence of the parallel alignment of spectatorial identification is that the film’s ‘revenge’  segment takes on a greater level of complexity than the traditional generic formula. When Bok-nam enacts her bloody revenge on her oppressors there is a sense of moral justice to her actions, yet when she turns her attentions to Hae-won, the viewer is left divided; Hae-Won, after all, is a co-protagonist with whom the spectator is partially aligned with, yet her acquiescence to the  conspiracy of silence on the island effectively renders her as guilty as the islanders, so is she therefore not as deserving of comeuppance? This section of the film, now relocated to the mainland, punctures the prior triumphalism of Bok-nam’s vengeance by inserting an ambiguity to the moral framework which had previously seemed justifiable. Rather than the didacticism of the ‘good’ city pitted against the ‘bad’ country, what Bedevilled has drawn up is a morality founded more purely on victimhood rather than geography or class.

These questions may add complexity to the traditional urbanoia revenge plot, but on a symbolic level it remains conventional. Bok-nam’s story illustrates that a country-on-country axis of violence is acceptable, indeed perhaps even the the only effective solution to her problems, her ‘masculinization’ on the island permitting her to slay her fellow ‘masculine’ countryfolk (most of whom, significantly, are female – the one survivor is male). However, her subsequent attack on the ‘effeminized’ Hae-won, effectively a double-axis of country-on-city, male-on-female violence is considered too much of a transgression. Hae-won’s use of her recorder as a weapon, in turn suggests a conventional regendering of her character as ‘male’ victim-turned-hero.

Bedevilled, then, is a blend of complexity and conventionality with regard to the urbanoia sub-genre.  While providing the viewer with many of the traditional outward signifiers of an antagonistic  city-country axis, the two-protagonist setup develop a drama which instead parallels the experiences of women as victims within both types of social environment, and which replaces the straightforward revenge formula with a more morally ambiguous equation, even if there is a striking conventionality to it in symbolic gender terms.

One thought on “Men, Women and Hand-Scythes: Urbanoia and Gender in Yang Chul-soo’s Bedevilled

  1. Very very well written review, and I never thought about Freudian symbol of the axe before this 🙂

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