So, I have already featured movie about city women going to a fishing village on a faraway island. But…this movie asks the question…what if that community was really really terrible?
On a late-night radio program in Seoul, some guy recounts going to a vegetarian camp and being allowed no food except for the plants that he picked on a walk. It is meant to be humorous, but one could take it as a sign of what is to come.
Hae-won is a stylish, no-nonsense urban professional. She is driving through the busy nighttime streets of Seoul, when she stops at a traffic light. She looks out her window and sees two guys assaulting a young woman on a side street outside of a Starbucks. She stops the program on her phone (oh, I guess that it was not a live radio broadcast) and…does nothing else. To be fair, the people walking past seem to just try to avoid the scene and the Starbucks customers just completely ignore what is happening outside, so it is not just Hae-won being a coward.
The woman runs to the stopped cars and Hae-won closes her windows as the woman approaches hers. She slowly starts to drive away and the woman screams. There is a thud. What happened? Well, the scene ends.
So, Hae-won was not the worst person in the opening scene, but she is the worst person in this next one. At work, she rather curtly denies an elderly woman a $30,000 loan to help her change of residence. The elderly woman claims that Hae-won had said otherwise before, and that she had already moved. Well, I am not sure who is right, but Hae-won blames the woman for not making sure that this was all okay before signing the lease and loudly denies promising the loan. Everyone in the room goes silent. Hae-won gets a call, which she hangs up on. She then tells her co-worker, Ji-soo, that she is taking a break for a bit and then asks the woman to leave.
Hae-won is driving when the phone rings again. The woman on the other end apologizes for bothering her during work, but says that she is always busy. She then accuses Hae-won of never writing back and then asks if she can visit. Hae-won hangs up.
Hae-won goes to a police station to look at suspects from the assault the other night. Her main concern is that the suspects cannot see her through the glass, which is reasonable. She tells one of the two cops in the room that they look about right, but then tries to get out of making a statement when told that the victim’s friend had witnessed them harassing her in a club. She says that she did not get a good look at their faces, but does point out that neither of them is wearing a ring that she had noticed. A ring with a marking that could be seen from the photos of…oh, is the woman dead?
Well, the interview is over and Hae-won tells the cops that she does not want them to contact her again, and that it is unlikely that she will contact them either. And with that, the two murderers walk out of the police station to greet their…White friend…okay…An elderly man confronts the young men and the cops have to intervene. He runs to Hae-won, pleading for information as she gets into her car. The cops take him into the station and her anonymity is shot.
Hae-won tries to drive off, but the young men surround her car, being very threatening. A cop runs over and the murders walk away, and there she notices the ring that had not been there before. The cop asks her if they said anything, whether she wants to say anything more. No. She just wants to leave.
Hae-won returns to work to see that Ji-soo has helped out that elderly woman, giving her a form for her landlord to sign. The woman is extremely grateful; Hae-won, not so much. She and Ji-soo have a private…chat, where Hae-won tries to sus out Ji-soo’s angle here. Ji-soo claims merely that she had felt so bad for the woman. Now Hae-won accuses Ji-soo of being…close with the manager and other male superiors. Sheesh.
Hae-won goes to the bathroom and texts Ji-soo. They seem to have reconciled and plan to have drinks after work. With that settled, Hae-won exits the toilet stall…or not. Someone left a mop against the door. And the lights go out. It is a real struggle for her to get out.
Hae-won walks over to Ji-soo, who has on the same footwear that Hae-won had seen just outside of the stall. Ji-soo is about to suggest a place for drinks when Hae-won smacks her in the face. Again. Silence. Hae-won looks around to see another worker (and most likely the actual culprit) wearing the exact same footwear.
Well, the manager calls Hae-won in and tells her to take a vacation.
With nothing to do, Hae-won eats alone and day drinks at home.
Some…time passes and Hae-won decides to take a trip to the island of Mudo. She takes a small boat from the mainland to the island. The pilot tells her that the island stopped being any kind of destination as of ten years ago, and now, only nine people live there. So, who is she visiting there? Hae-won says that her grandfather, Kim Suk-hwan, used to live there. The pilot exclaims that that means that she must be Hae-won, as he had assumed. Then he asks if she remembers him. If she is married. She then flashes back to her childhood, playing the recorder on the island with a local friend. She hands the recorder to her friend, who does not seem to be in the mood.
But here is her friend, all grown up, to greet Hae-won’s arrival. Bok-nam can barely believe that her best childhood friend has finally returned, and gives her a big hug. The boat pilot rudely tells Bok-nam to avoid touching Hae-won with her dirty hands. Bok-nam apologizes, but Hae-won does not seem to mind.
Bok-nam leads Hae-won up a hill to the village, where a trio of elderly women greet her. They ask whether she remembers them, and whether drinking Seoul’s water keeps her skin so white. Then Bok-nam points to the two younger men kind of standing around back a ways: her husband Man-jong and his brother Cheol-jong. Perhaps Hae-won remembers them too.
Uh oh. A fourth elderly woman yells at Bok-nam for calling her husband and brother-in-law by their names. She is their aunt. And she is perplexed as to why Hae-won is visiting, as there is nothing here to see. One of the three other older women, I guess, another aunt, tries to come up with an explanation. But mean aunt asks Hae-won when she is going back. Hae-won tells her that she is staying for about a week, and the mean aunt claims that she will want to leave in a day. Then she tells everyone to get back to work.
Bok-nam guides Hae-won to the house where her grandfather had lived. On the way. Hae-won asks Bok-nam what Cheol-jong and an old man whom they had passed along the way were chewing on. Bok-nam calls it bozo leaf…because you become a bozo if you chew on it. I have no idea what it actually is. Betel? Coca? Some sort of drug, definitely.
They arrive at the house and Hae-won sees Yeon-hee, Bok-nam’s 10-year-old daughter. Bok-nam wants her to greet Hae-won, but Yeon-hee walks off. Bok-nam says that Yeon-hee does not know how to act around others. Hae-won asks what grade she is in. Bok-nam says that she had wanted to send her to school, but that Man-jong and his aunt argued that girls do not need schooling and that Yeon-hee would run away if she were to get educated. Hae-won cannot believe such mindsets still persist. Bok-nam says that she hopes to send Yeon-hee to school next year.
Bok-nam seems about to ask for a favor when Hae-won interrupts the conversation to ask how the house could be in such good condition since her grandfather had died fifteen years ago. Bok-nam tells her that she had spent three days cleaning the place. Hae-won tries to steer the conversation back to Yeon-hee’s education, but Bok-nam dismisses it and goes to get some food. By the time that she returns, Hae-won has already fallen asleep. She has no pillow, but Bok-nam slips a wooden…block…under her head for support. And it seems to work.
That evening, Bok-nam is at home eating dinner with Man-jong, Cheol-jong, and Yeon-hee. Man-jong says that he and Yeon-hee will be going night fishing. Yeon-hee is eager to go, but Bok-nam mutters that they always come back empty-handed. Man-jong slams the table, but Bok-nam tries to diffuse the situation by getting Yeon-hee to confirm that she loves to go fishing with him.
So, the two go night fishing…or, at least put their fishing rods out by the water. Meanwhile, Cheol-jong…uh…has sex with Bok-nam, getting bits of the leaf all over her. I am not sure if I would necessarily call it rape, but it appears to be unpleasant enough, so…
Man-jong and Yeon-hee return…seemingly with no fish once again. Yeon-hee sits outside eating some fruit while the two Man-jong and Bok-nam go in the house. Man-jong notices pieces of bozo leaf on the sheets and comes up with an excuse to start beating Bok-nam. Yeon-hee continues to sit outside eating the fruit. Apparently, this is a normal evening.
As the elderly man sits around chewing on bozo leaves, the two brothers and the three elderly women help put roofing on a house. The mean aunt arrives to serve tea. She says to the other elder women, that stuff like this is why you need a man around; even a dozen cannot do what Man-jong is doing. The others ask him to fix up parts of their houses afterwards and mean aunt argues that he is dying doing all the work. Surely, they will all die if he dies.
Meanwhile, Bok-nam is in the background still making sealant to keep the roofing together. Everyone ignores her until she takes a break, and of course mean aunt yells at her. One of the other women suggests that Bok-nam must be tired and should rest as well. The others seem to agree, but mean aunt says that it is nothing compared to men’s work…never mind what she had just said about men and women not even a minute earlier.
Nicer aunt asks how…Kim’s granddaughter is doing. Bok-nam says that she is still sleeping, and mean aunt tsks tsks sleeping in the day. Bok-nam theorizes that Seoul life is really hard. Mean aunt calls Hae-won a stupid little girl for taking a vacation and still not being married. Bok-nam responds that there are lots of unmarried women in Seoul. Mean aunt notes that Bok-nam has been yapping a lot about Seoul lately. Well, that is the end of that conversation.
Bok-nam brings some food to the person who had been the main character of this movie until about six minutes ago. Between dismissing Hae-won’s insistence that she can do her own cooking and laundry, Bok-nam asks whether she wants to go bathe in the pond after sundown when everyone else is asleep. Like when they were kids.
Some time passes and they are in the pond. Bok-nam pours some water on Hae-won’s back and gives her a back massage of sorts. Oh…Bok-nam gropes Hae-won, startling her. Bok-nam tries to brush it off and Hae-won tells her that it just scared her, but she is not exactly okay with it. Bok-nam says that Hae-won must have got men lined up for her. That gets Hae-won smiling, or at least smirking. She splashes Bok-nam, leading to a splash fight.
The next day, Hae-won goes for a walk around the island. She looks at the houses. She goes up the hills. She looks at a base station for phones that may or may not work. She sees the elderly women swimming for seafood. She finds a piece of leaf and chews on it.
Hae-won hears Cheol-jong approaching her and she discreetly picks up what appears to be a piece of mirror, just in case. Without saying anything, Cheol-jong offers her a piece of bozo leaf. She takes it and starts to chew on it, only to spit it out. Cheol-jong laughs. So…was it bozo leaf or something else? He steps closer and she steps back, gripping the mirror piece behind her back. Suddenly, Yeon-hee arrives from wherever to hand him a bunch of flowers. He spits a piece of bozo leaf at her and walks off.
Yeon-hee hands Hae-won a collection of textbooks, saying that her mother gave them to her so she could fold the pages, except for the one that talks about Seoul. So, they make little paper boats out of the pages. They play some more, stringing a bunch of seashells into a necklace. Yeon-hee says that she wants to get holes in her ears like Hae-won…and that she wishes that her boobs would soon grow big like Hae-won’s. Kids, right?
The two return to Yeon-hee’s house to see Bok-nam sitting on the porch eating lunch as if she has no idea that Man-jong is inside having loud sex with another woman. Bok-nam sees Yeon-hee and tries to rush her away, but Yeon-hee starts yelling, angry that she is here again. Hae-won asks Bok-nam what is going on. Bok-nam says that this is all just fooling around and asks her to watch Yeon-hee some more. Yeon-hee starts to hit Bok-nam, and Bok-nam tries to restrain her while mean aunt silently walks by them towards the house. Bok-nam pushes Hae-won and Yeon-hee away.
Mean aunt puts her catch of seashells into a bowl, telling Bok-nam to tell “her” to sell the honey as well. Bok-nam goes back to eating her lunch. Mean aunt scolds her for doing so while hearing what is going on inside, as if what Bok-nam is doing is the worst thing happening in this residence.
It is some time later and the other woman is sitting on the porch, fixing her lipstick. Yeon-hee is back and is glaring at her. Eventually, she gets on the porch, hits the woman on the back of the head, and storms inside. The woman turns to Bok-nam and apologizes for all of this. The woman insists that she did not want to come here, but Man-jong had paid her boss three times the rate. She apologizes again. Bok-nam still does not look at her, but asks her why she is sorry, given that she is not the monster.
The woman says that she would have run away if she were in Bok-nam’s situation. Bok-nam tells her that he would probably kill her if she tried again…again? The woman tells her than no one would find her in Seoul. Then why, Bok-nam asks the woman, is she living like she is? The woman laughs for a bit before offering to run away to Seoul with Bok-nam. Bok-nam says that Yeon-hee needs her father. The woman claims to have grown up fine without a father. Bok-nam scoffs at that.
After the woman leaves for the mainland, Bok-nam is handling a…box thing of bees, trying to access the honey. Man-jong, once again having come up with a flimsy excuse to hurt Bok-nam, throws a rock at the boxes, sending the bees into a panic, which results in Bok-nam getting stung all over.
Despite the stings, it appears that Bok-nam has made dinner…for Man-jong. And he still finds an excuse to hurt her.
Bok-nam goes over to bring some food to Hae-won, who is doing some stretches. After inquiring about the bee stings, Hae-won asks why Bok-nam lets Man-jong have sex with someone else in their own house. Bok-nam replies that the people here keep things to ourselves. And it is not as if Hae-won is going to take her in. Hae-won does not argue that point, but finds Bok-nam’s lack of self-reliance somewhat contemptible. Bok-nam does not argue that point either, at least not with words. She tries to copy Hae-won’s stretch, but loses her balance and falls onto Hae-won. They lie on the floor for a bit, just relaxing. Well, Bok-nam is relaxing; Hae-won is still a little annoyed.
And…um…this is probably a good time to stop my summary.
I am sure that your first thought is…why the title of the movie is spelled like the Anne Baxter movie. Honestly, I do not know. The Korean title is completely different and…perhaps a bit spoiler-y.
So, this movie was the directorial debut of Jang Cheol-soo, who had been an assistant director to (shudders) Kim Ki-duk on a few of his films. I…did not know that until about a week ago, but I guess that there were thematic and stylistic hints. The world of Bedevilled is one where almost everyone is terrible, where the suffering of the innocent is taken as a given, exploitation is rife, women in particular are devalued, and society as a whole is apathetic. No, that stuff is not confined to the late Kim Ki-duk, but it is typical of directors like him. What makes this movie different? I…uh…
Okay, so I kind of alluded to this in the synopsis, but the movie has a somewhat odd style of focus regarding its main characters. While Hae-won is center stage for the first thirteen minutes, she starts sharing the screen-time with Bok-nam after that. They also have around an equal amount of screen time separately. Still, the story starts to shift from Hae-won’s journey of self-discovery and more towards Bok-nam’s slow acknowledgement that this island will be the death of her. It may seem puzzling that the movie starts off with Hae-won at all, as Bok-nam is more sympathetic from the outset. It sort of makes sense towards the end, however. Perhaps it is necessary to contrast the two women and their environments.
The movie definitely does not paint Hae-won in a positive light. Then again, it does not really paint her in a particularly negative light compared to Seoul itself. The Seoul in this film is crowded, chaotic, and cruel. In pretty much the first minute of the movie, we are introduced to the assault/murder, and no one in that crowd of funtime-havers helps the victim. No one else saw anything? Really? Why should Hae-won alone stick her neck out? Hae-won is no more capable of defending herself from those men as that other woman is, so she avoids getting involved as much as possible. Hae-won is on her own, so she leaves the other woman on her own. When the woman’s murders threaten her personally, she still stays the course. She does not want to help the woman’s family or the cops. She has no network of support and does not want any; not at work, not from the cops, not from anyone.
In this crowded city, Hae-won was alone and remains alone. Perhaps she prefers it like that. Her identity is one of intense self-reliance. She does not want to owe anyone anything, so that they do not inconvenience her when they come calling. I get the impression that the also does not want others to owe her, as there is no guarantee that they will not simply rip her off. So how come this loner became a loaner? Who knows? I am pretty sure that she was cynically individualist before getting the job, but it probably just hardened her worldview.
This is why Hae-won is so cruel to the elderly woman asking for a loan. Even if Hae-won had promised her a loan before for whatever reason, going through with it would have her go beyond what she feels she can do. She has nothing but contempt for this woman’s neediness and nothing but suspicion for Ji-soo’s helpfulness. Surely, her co-worker did this just to undermine her own standing in the company. It could not be from the goodness of her own heart. To Hae-won, good people are either liars or doormats.
So, what does that make Bok-nam?
As seen in The Seaside Village, places like where Bok-nam grew up were already isolated relics back when those elderly women were in their twenties. That it managed to survive beyond the turn of millennium should be seen as a miracle. But ten years have passed since then, and it is just a shadow of a shadow. Could the collapse have been connected to the birth of Yeon-hee? Perhaps. Or perhaps that was when the storm killed all of the men aside from that elderly one. Or perhaps the island already had problems before the storm and before Hae-won stopped visiting. In any case, that child, four elderly women, an elderly man, two young men, and a young woman are all that is left of the island’s community. Everyone else has either died or left. That one boat pilot seems like the only person who visits, and that is for business.
It appears, though, that what remains of the community has merely doubled down, which could be why they remained. After all, what is there on the mainland other than substandard loans in crowded cities? They may not have much on the island, but at least they are in charge…or at least mean aunt is. Perhaps the elderly man would have been, had he not become addicted to drugs and perhaps gotten Alzheimer’s. I am guessing that mean aunt is related to the Man-jong and Cheol-jong only by marriage, but she uses her relationship to the only able-bodied men who remain on the island as a way to lord over the other elderly women. The other women seem to be nicer than her for the most part, but they almost always defer to her. What choice do they have? Start over on the mainland? On the other side, the two young men obey mean aunt, perhaps out of Confucianism, but also because she feeds their egos and lets them misbehave otherwise. They would probably be nobodies on the mainland, but they are princes here.
The same, of course, cannot be said about Bok-nam. Sure, she is probably the only hope for the future of the community, but everyone is too stuck in the past to care about the future. And Bok-nam is perhaps a symbol of what they would rather not think about. But they keep her around because they need her to work. They prevent her from leaving because they need her to use as a scapegoat for all of their problems.
This is the life that Bok-nam knows. Neglected, abused, and insulted all of her life. Man-jong probably thinks that he married her as a favor to her and she owes him. We know that all of the men died in a storm, but the women? Perhaps they had all escaped. Perhaps Bok-nam also tried, but could not leave her young daughter. And what could she do? She has no experience looking out for herself and little experience standing up for herself. All she knows is that she needs a man in her life, even if she hates him. She needs a man to protect her, even if he would kill her. This is her life. She is trapped in a community that would probably kill if it did not need her. And her daughter is trapped as well. But she has kind of resigned herself to this life.
Or has she?
Aside from flashbacks with a younger Hae-won, we do not really see how Bok-nam behaves prior to Hae-won’s present visit. She is very nice and accommodating to Hae-won, but is that because she is genuinely a good person, because she personally likes Hae-won, or because she hopes that Hae-won could help her and her daughter finally escape? For the most part, she is obedient to her aunt and husband. She does not really talk back, resisting only when she is busy with other tasks. That she has not killed them and her brother-in-law during the past several years is a testament to her goodness. But, perhaps Hae-won’s mere presence may upset the balance.
It is not entirely clear why Bok-nam has been pestering Hae-won about visiting or how long she has been doing it. Or perhaps I just forgot. In any case, Hae-won was probably one of her only connections to the outside world when she was a kid. And even as a kid, Hae-won presented an alternative life of which Bok-nam could barely dream. She was pale and glamourous. She was free and free to leave. And she lived in the far-off land of Seoul. Seoul: a place where women could be independent, where a woman can be whatever she wants to be. Where she can escape. Nevermind that that is a lie; that Seoul has its own terribleness and women are not all that safe there either. Hae-won personified Seoul to Bok-nam and Seoul meant Hae-won to her. Hae-won is a symbol of escape and Bok-nam latches onto her. Hae-won seems to be ambivalent about this, at best.
Independent to a fault, Hae-won seems to feel like Bok-nam’s co-dependency has put her in the situation that she is in and that trading Man-jong for Hae-won will not help her. Also, Hae-won probably does not want to be held responsible for Bok-nam’s safety while in Seoul. Perhaps Hae-won has a point. Perhaps Bok-nam would never survive the real Seoul. At the same time, it was Hae-won, not the seemingly kindly Ji-soo, who got put on leave. Perhaps Bok-nam could become independent and self-reliant, if only she ever had the opportunity to live that way.
Whether or not Hae-won cares to acknowledge it, she and Bok-nam have a history. Yes, this history may have been limited to their childhoods, but it still connects them, even after Hae-won stopped visiting, which I am guessing was before her grandfather died. And the movie strongly implies that they had a romantic connection. Not like…majorly, they were barely even teenagers. But there were hints that, at the very least, Hae-won had awoken something in Bok-nam. Now, whether young Hae-won had been serious or not is unclear. One coooould, however, make the argument that Hae-won is a lesbian. Or that she has an aversion to men and contempt for women who would latch onto men for protection. Or an aversion to people in general. Either way. One could also make the case that Bok-nam is bisexual, or even a lesbian herself. The movie does not really make a statement. And for a movie that is super unsubtle about everything compared to something like A Girl At My Door, which was released about four years later, it is kind of notable.
Erm…ambivalent Pride Month?
So…will, Hae-won teach Bok-nam to stand up for herself? Will Bok-nam teach Hae-won to help others? Will Bok-nam finally achieve her dream of going to Seoul? Maybe…you will have to watch if you want to find out.
This movie…a lot. A lot a lot. It takes elements that have been popping up in many South Korean movies and does something…a little different with it. So, if you are okay with a lot, then go ahead.
WTF ASIA 166: Beyond the Clouds (India: 2017, approx. 120 minutes)
WTF ASIA 167: The Flower Girl (NORTH Korea: 1972, approx. 121-128 minutes)