Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Devilish Homicide, aka A Bloodthirsty Killer (South Korea, 1965)

On paper, A Devilish Homicide (also known as A Bloodthirsty Killer and, in its home country, Salinma) tells what is more or less a boilerplate Asian ghost story. There is the vengeful spirit of a wronged woman—sheathed in white, of course, and with her eerily glaring countenance peeking out from behind a veil of long black hair—who, as the years have taught us to expect, spends the bulk of the movie systematically picking off all of those responsible for her demise. In practice, however, the film is a great example of how an oft-told tale, when told inventively, can take on a vibrant new life.

For the first half of A Devilish Homicide, director Lee Yong-min seems to have dropped us into the middle of a Lynch-ean nightmare, piling on one disturbing visual non sequitur on top of another until, very gradually, a story starts to coalesce. This story, once it comes into view, is an anxious one of a middle class family unit so plagued by both mysterious outside forces and byzantine internal intrigues that it is impossible not to compare it to Kim Ki-Young’s landmark The Housemaid, made five years earlier. As in other rapidly modernizing Asian societies in the 1960s, the state of the traditional family appears to have been an abiding concern for Koreans at the time.

The film begins with well-to-do businessman Lee Shi-mak (Lee Ye-chun) making a late night visit to a deserted gallery, where he finds on the wall a red-tinted portrait of a woman whom he immediately recognizes. Much later, we will learn that this woman is Ae-ja (Do Kum-bong), Shi-mak’s ex-wife, who disappeared ten years earlier—but, for the time being, Yong-min leaves us to piece this together for ourselves.

Shi-mak takes the painting from the wall, only to have the image melt away before his eyes. He then flees the building and hops into a cab. Shi-mak wants to go home, but the disfigured cab driver has ideas of his own, taking his increasingly uneasy passenger out into the countryside. The driver warns Shi-mak that the night is alive with vengeful spirits and, to illustrate that fact, we are shown a dawn-lit forest teeming with white garbed female forms. This haunting image, presaging Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, is one of many in A Devilish Homicide that will stick with you long afterward.

Eventually the driver lets Shi-mak off at another apparently abandoned building, the interior of which, as rendered by Hong Jun-Mun’s noirish cinematography, is a foreboding maze of shadows. There he stumbles into the apartment of an artist, who happens to be in possession of the painting of Ae-ja and insists that Shi-mak take it. Before he can make his exit—or find out what the actual fuck is going on—the clock strikes midnight and the murderous spirit of Ae-jun appears at the artist’s door, dagger in hand. Hiding under the bed, Shi-mak watches fearfully as the ghost overcomes the artist and stabs him in the back. He then escapes from the building, only to be pursued by the cab driver, who now seems to have murder on his mind.

Taking shelter in yet another expressionistic ruin, Shi-mak crashes through the rotting floorboards into the shadowy crawlspace. There he finds the supine body of Ae-jun, unaged since her disappearance, in an apparent state of suspended animation. He takes her to his doctor friend, Park, who clearly recognizes her and is just as startled as Shi-mak to see her. He examines her while all the while exclaiming that it is impossible for her to be alive. Except that she is—although, when Park puts a stethoscope to her chest, all he hears is science fiction-y electronic noises.

Now, at this point in A Devilish Homicide, there have been many opportunities for the screen to go all watery and for Shi-mak to sit bolt upright in bed and scream—in the manner all movies seem to think we awaken from bad dreams even though none of us do ever. Even Shi-mak—who is wandering through the abandoned streets of the city in the middle of the night why, exactly?—repeatedly exclaims that he must be having a nightmare. This conviction is bolstered by the languid horror of all that has happened so far, which is more than a little reminiscent of the similarly dream-like Carnival of Souls. Even a devotee of outré cinema such as me, who should have been conditioned by my viewings of other deeply strange Korean movies like Woman after a Killer Butterfly, surrendered to the expectation that all of these improbable events would eventually be ascribed to night terrors. However, this was not to be the case.

Shi-mak leaves Ae-jun with Dr. Park and returns home to his family, an idyllic unit consisting of his wife, his mother and his three children. Ae-jun, who has murdered Park immediately upon waking up, is not far behind, and soon the family's bonds are tested by a series of horrific encounters. First, Shi-mak’s mom walks into the forest to pray at a Buddhist shrine and is attacked by Ae-jun, who growls and hisses like a cat. We see her getting pushed into the river and swallowed by the current, and she is missing long enough to be feared dead. Grandma nonetheless returns, albeit with a few add-ons. In one particularly hard to un-see scene, she finds her two youngest grandchildren asleep in their shared bed and starts compulsively licking their faces.

In another harrowing sequence, Ae-jun reaches in through a bedroom window and snatches Shi-mak’s teenage daughter up onto the roof of the house. Her mother desperately tries to reach the roof, but the rickety ladder she is using starts to buck and sway dangerously in the wind. All the while, her daughter’s screams of terror and agony pierce the soundtrack. Meanwhile, grandma (in a toweringly creepy performance by a Korean actress whom I sadly cannot identify) continues to behave in an increasingly sinister manner. Suspicious, Shi-mak spies on her and witnesses her grooming herself in the mirror, licking her hand and then pulling it back across her hair. Looking back at her from the mirror is the reflection of a cat. Shi-mak barges in on her and a struggle ensues. His mother dies, leaving in her place a dead cat wearing a tiny robe.

When Shi-mak, in a fit of rage, destroys the portrait of Ae-jun, he finds hidden within it the artist’s diary. In it, the artist describes the murder plot that lead to poor Ae-jun’s demise. Suffice it to say that it’s a scheme that’s every bit as absurd as it is vicious. He also describes aspects of Ae-jun’s sad and lonely death that he could not possibly have known about. Soon thereafter, a mysterious young woman appears at Shi-mak’s home and offers to become the family’s maid. She gives Shi-mak a third eye taken from one of the Buddhist shrine’s idols for protection. This he will repeatedly throw at Ae-jun like a mystical superball in their final confrontation.

A Devilish Homicide is a strange film, but strange only in the best way possible--while being at the same time relentlessly, oppressively creepy. It is also a film that could prove instructive to the current generation of commercial filmmakers, some of whom think that making a genre film is simply a matter of faithfully rolling out a catalog of established tropes and familiar plot points. This practice results in boring and unimaginative genre films that make people like me sad. As an alternative, what A Devilish Homicide demonstrates is that every story, no matter how hackneyed, offers a myriad of potential drop pins from which it can be told—and, depending how far those pins venture from a conventional perspective, told interestingly. In fact, the earlier reference to David Lynch is appropriate here, as so many of his movies, like A Devilish Homicide, contain within them conventional genre films that have been fractured almost beyond recognition.

In the case of A Devilish Homicide, we eventually find that, despite him being positioned as the protagonist, the story is not that of Shi-mak at all. Shi-mak was neither an actor in the plot against Ae-jun nor privy to it, which means that the story of A Devilish Homicide is really that of Ae-jun, an innocent who suffered tragically at the hands of her conniving loved ones and ended up a spirit walking the earth in search of vengeance. If the movie had been made in Indonesia, Ae-jun would be the central character--and portrayed by Suzzanna.

Instead, Lee Yong-min drops us into the middle of a businessman’s nightmare and lets us struggle out of that toward the film’s true heart. Although it’s forcing of a male perspective might merely be the result of patriarchal imperative, its central tale, like that of most Suzanna films, is one of man’s inhumanity to women.

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