Films Examine Unsettling Ways Women’s Bodies are Used

Trolling through films I’ve meant to watch, I saw two that, at least on the surface, are total opposites. Bedevilled (2010) is a South Korean film whose English title (radically different from the Korean) suggests a horror film. It’s not, not in the traditional sense. Australian film Sleeping Beauty (2011) may suggest a fairy tale. It is and it isn’t—not in the traditional sense.

Both films are quite good, both disturbing (in different ways) and they’ll put viewers in two camps: those who react to disturbing plots and those who don’t. And both deal with women as victims and predators, but not the way of a typical Hollywood production.

Titled The Whole Story of the Kim Bok-nam Murder Case in Korea, Bedevilled starts with a focus on Hae-won (Seong-won Ji), a beautiful young business exec whose lack of sympathy forces her boss to make her take a break. Hae-won doesn’t want to get involved—in anything.

Her unplanned vacation takes her to her childhood home, a remote island community. She’s reunited with Bok-nam (Yeong-hie Seo), a close friend from the past she has (despite Bok-nam’s desperate efforts to reconnect) shunted to a time she’d rather ignore. Memories and events conspire against her self-imposed isolation.

On the island, the story shifts to Bok-nam, who’s in sheer hell. Brutalized by her husband and brother-in-law, sharing her at will, Bok-nam gets only contempt from the other women, her husband’s vicious mother and aunts. The older women condone, if not downright encourage, the young woman’s abuse.

Bok-nam’s only solace is her young daughter; however, she realizes the child will soon be a victim of her own father. All this time, Hae-won stays apart to her friend’s desperation, forcing Bok-nam to try to escape on her own. She fails horribly, and revenge at all costs is her only recourse.

If this seems to echo I Spit on Your Grave et al, be assured Bedevilled isn’t an exploitation film. Yes, there’s the expected graphic violence near the end, but director Cheol-soo Jang achieves far more depth and range than a typical movie of this ilk has, in his lauded feature debut. While Bok-nam’s sad story is the film’s center, Bedevilled goes to Hae-won for its conclusion, showing her redemption through her friend’s suffering.

It ends with a beautiful shot, transposing Hae-won’s reclining figure into the island home of her childhood. It shows that despite our best efforts, the past is always with us.

Like Bedevilled, Sleeping Beauty was a big winner on the Festival Circuit, with four nods from the Australian Film Critics Association—Best Picture, Actress (Emily Browning), Director and Screenplay (Julia Leigh). However, Sleeping Beauty is the polar opposite of Bedevilled, except for an endangered heroine.

Writer/director Leigh fashions a deliberately elliptical narrative for her feature debut. The film opens with young college student Lucy (Browning) undergoing some kind of endoscopy experiment, apparently for the money. She goes to class, meets a friend at a bar, scores some coke and agrees to casual sex with an apparent stranger.

Scene dissolves into scene as we watch Lucy go to work for Clara (Rachael Blake), a sophisticated madam whose clientele are rich old men who pay to sleep beside willingly drugged, comatose girls, without having sex.

Lucy is a cypher. The only person she seems to care about is Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), a reclusive former junkie whom she asks to marry her. But like most everyone else in Sleeping Beauty, he’s also a puzzle, cuddling beside Lucy as he deliberately overdoses.

Featuring prominent nudity but no sex, Sleeping Beauty is puzzling and provocative—and fascinating in its portrait of the doomed Lucy, sleepwalking through her young life’s sexual wasteland.