TheExorcist (1973) was so successful that spanned not only a plethora of sequels and spin-offs, but it essentially gave birth to an entire sub-genre of horror. Due to its religious and cultural affiliations, these films have been largely confined to the west (particularly the US and Europe), with only a minor presence in Asian cinema. Notable exceptions do exist, of course, as in the case of the South Korean film, The Priests (2015), which was both a critical and commercial success in its home country. Nevertheless, these examples tend to be isolated cases rather than indications of popular trends in filmmaking.
One film that hopes to break the
mold and bring the exorcism genre to the forefront is the latest from South
Korean director Kim Joo-hwan, The Divine Fury, an action-horror flick
that combines demonic possession with mixed martial arts. An alluring premise,
one that perhaps is capable of spanning a long-lasting franchise (as the
filmmakers seem to hope), though one that unfortunately does not carry through
in execution. In its 129-minute runtime, The Divine Fury offers very
little that is unique or original, or even inspired in its endless repetitions.
The plot revolves around Yong-hoo
(Park Seo-jun), an MMA fighter who ever since his father died on a tragic
police accident, has developed a festering hate for God and Christian religion.
His disposition begins to shift when a wound appears on his hand following a
mass attack of demons. At first, he is unaware of the supernatural influences
and can’t understand why his wound keeps bleeding. While looking for answers,
Yong-hoo crosses path with Father Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki), an exorcist priest from
the Vatican, currently on duty in Korea. While saving the priest’s life from an
exorcism gone haywire, Yong-hoo discovers his wounded hand is a weapon that can
set demons on fire.
After significant deliberation and
hesitation on behalf of the troubled young man (along with tons of expository
dialogue to make sure that the audience doesn’t fall behind on all the hierarchical
minutia of demonic possession), Yong-hoo and Father Ahn partner up to fight the
demons that have invaded Seoul. Armed with Father Ahn’s seemingly infinite
wisdom and Yong-hoo’s stigmatized hand, the duo tackle case after case of
demonic possessions. Their ultimate target is the “Dark Bishop,”
Ji-Sin (Woo Do-hwan), a sin-inviting night-club owner who has made a deal with
the Devil and whose goal is to wreak havoc in the city.
For a film marketed as “action-horror,” The Divine Fury contains very little of either. The scares are almost non-existent, and the action is brief, concentrated mostly at the end of the film during the final showdown between Yong-hoo and the Dark Bishop. The direction and action choreography of the final fight scene deserves some praise, but it also serves as a stark reminder that the rest of the movie is nowhere near as exciting – and that is not saying much. Yong-hoo’s MMA background, introduced early on, acts is little more than a tease for something that never materializes. It seems pointless. Thus, instead of being The Raid meets The Exorcist,” The Divine Fury ends up a drama about a 20-year old with daddy issues and an old-priest seemingly composed of pretty much every cliché in the book. And this wouldn’t be so bad, if only the drama in between the fights wasn’t so lifeless and flat.
There is merit in the relationship
that develops between Yong-hoo and Father Ahn – the two actors’ talent and
chemistry are evident on screen – but the tiresome plot and over-reliance on
the same old tropes takes away any possible charm that the characters might
have had. Almost every scene inspires flashbacks of films where it’s been done
better, and even when the semblance of something new and original appears on
screen, the filmmakers appear utterly uninterested in exploring it. For
instance, a traditional Korean shaman makes a brief appearance in the film,
explaining the source of demons that haunt Yong-hoo, but is never mentioned
again. After that, the film converts back to the usual Catholicism.
The Divine Fury is not the
first South Korean film to delve into the exorcism genre, but it might be the
first that tries to start a series out of its premise. In that respect, it has
more in common with a Marvel superhero origin story than a horror film
(including a mid-credit scene teasing the next film). With a second film
already planned, it’s hard to say whether or not this bid for a franchise will
succeed. But if the rest are anything like the first entry, I very much doubt
John Atom is two things: a molecular physicist by day and a devout cinephile by night. His love for Asian cinema started way back in high school when one rainy night he decided to pick up a rather peculiar-looking DVD of a movie called Oldboy... and he was hooked! Since then, he’s watched just about every Asian film he could get his hands on, and plans to continue doing so. More recently he’s developed a new interest in science fiction, particularly in the interdependence of science and SF, and how one may influence the other.