An in-depth look at the multi-faceted role of women in horror as explored in the brutal and beautiful South Korean horror film Bedevilled (2010)
Women are a funny thing. On one hand, they’re soft, polite, demure. On the other hand, they’re poisonous, conniving, femme fatales. Though there are a handful of notable horror heroines of the second type, we often see women in horror as Scream Queens or Final Girls.
Constantly on the run from an unknown masculine assailant, these characters opt for last-ditch efforts and lucky shots, rarely taking the offensive role and fighting back with full force. That’s now changed.
In the past decade or so, women in horror have, for lack of a better term, grown some balls.
In You’re Next (2011), Erin stalked and killed her attackers like a lion would a zebra. Teeth (2007) showed us that vaginas have the power to create life — and destroy it.
One of the most powerful films to show all facets of life as a woman, though, is South Korea’s Bedevilled (2010).
Hae-won is everything a woman in aspires to be: beautiful, independent, working at a finance firm in the city. But as the stress of her life forces her to take some time off, she decides to go home to the island she spent her childhood at. There, she spends time with her old friend, Bok-nam, who tries her best to hide her abuse by the other villagers.
Bok-nam is constantly beaten by her husband, raped by her brother-in-law, and chastised by the older women of the island. And the closer it gets to Hae-won’s return to the city, the more desperate Bok-nam becomes, begging Hae-won to take her and her daughter to Seoul. Bok-nam’s life is jolted out of control when her daughter is killed in a scuffle with her husband, forcing Bok-nam to turn to extreme violence to ease her grief. No one on the island is safe.
Not only is Bedevilled a beautiful representation of Korean horror, it’s beauty is reflected in the simplicity of it’s scares.
The only relief from grief and suffering is bloodshed, which is exactly what we get. ‘Bedevilled’ is more than a story of a woman scorned, it’s about women’s constant struggle to find a place in the world and what happens when it is taken away from her. This is especially true for Asian cinema, as women are typically shown as more reserved and dainty, trying not to make a ripple in the ocean that is a man’s world.
Throughout Bedevilled, we see glimpses of Bok-nam’s past, through visuals and stories from the other islanders. She talks in rural, uneducated speech. Always shows a smile, especially to her long-time friend, Hae-won. She even displays kindness towards her abusers by tending to her ruthless husband and helping the older women in the vegetable fields.
Bok-nam is stuck and she knows it, but she continues to provide the best for her daughter and Hae-won despite her mistreatment. Hae-won, on the other hand, is the Yin to Bok-nam’s Yang. Where Bok-nam is warm and friendly, Hae-won is cold and uncompassionate. In order to prove herself in her field, she is quick to chastise others but slow to lend a helping hand, especially if it interrupts her way of life. She is as prim and thorny as a rosebush.
Bok-nam and Hae-won are two sides of the same coin, though. We see a clear change in both women as the story unfolds. Bok-nam exacts revenge on the people of the island (using the cold bitterness usually seen in Hae-won), and Hae-won lets her emotions take control (as Bok-nam did) in her desperate escape from Bok-nam’s rampage.
Unfortunate events finally even that balance in the two, cementing both Bok-nam and Hae-won’s positions as strong women.
The biggest evidence of this comes at the very end of the film. After a final showdown with Bok-nam and a trip to the police station, Hae-won returns home. She walks directly into the shower, fully-dressed, and lets the water run over her face. Then, a still-soaked Hae-won sits on her living room floor, reading Bok-nam’s unopened letters pleading for help. Hae-won lays down on the floor, the silhouette of her body fading into the silhouette of the island. She and Bok-nam are equal.
Just as a girl experiences her period as a journey into womanhood, Hae-won and Bok-nam spill the blood of others (and at times, each other) in their quest to move on to the next phase of their lives. We see that both parties are changed because of the trauma they experienced, but that change was a needed one.
Bedevilled teaches us that women can be a small voice among many, like the Tinas (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984) and Sallys (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) of yesteryear.
We’re also capable, though, of causing a ruckus, of making a splash, of righting wrongs, and of making things right. ‘Bedevilled’ doesn’t glorify the gore that a woman’s life can end up being; instead, it tries to shine light on the duality we express, and how women are more than just a pretty face.