The Divine Fury (South Korea, 2019)

The Exorcist (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 it.