Wavering between playing its demon-expelling story for serious spiritual reflection and sensationalized thrills until a decisive end, The Divine Fury settles for a lukewarm version of both that never quite sings to the heavens, nor bellows from the darkness. That it seems to lack purity of vision doesn’t necessarily mean that lovers of supernatural thrillers should spew it from their cinema-gorging mouths, but uneven pacing and uninspired exorcisms weigh down an otherwise admirable attempt at earnestness in telling what essentially boils down to a priestly superhero origin story.
After a young boy in Seoul named Yong-hoo loses his father to a tragic accident, he turns his back on God, abandoning faith all together. Years later, he is a champion MMA fighter, beating his opponents with the ferocity of a devil. The thing is, Yong-hoo actually hears voices in his head urging him on to engage in more violence, and he suffers from nightly succubus-like episodes, where truly creepy shadow beasts plunge their spindly appendages into his sleeping body, filling him with their rotting malevolence. When an ethereal dream leads to symptoms typical of stigmata, a blind shaman tells Yong-hoo that he is covered with demons, so he eventually decides to seek help from an elderly priest knowledgeable in such things.
The two eventually team up, taking on an alarmingly increasing number of fiendish possessions that have been brought on by a Dark Bishop whose goal of everlasting life involves demon worship. These Ex(orcism)-Men alternate back and forth between casting evil spirits from their red-eyed victims to chatting about belief in general, all the while attempting to discover the identity of a cunning foe poised to exploit their weaknesses.
This all sounds more involved than it really is, as The Divine Fury never gets much past a bible school treatment of the material. Lost faith can be an interesting vein to mine, but that kind of deep-rooted damage needs to be explored with delicate focus if it’s to have any real impact (see Paul Shrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist for a better example of how to probe at bitterness and guilt); otherwise it’s just another shallow trope. Unfortunately, that’s what we end up getting here, along with all the other tropes we’ve come to expect from exorcism movies over the years; repetitive Latin recitations, hissing holy water burns, eerie levitation, vomiting black goo, walking on the ceiling, and cruel taunts all come into play, and not unlike they’ve been done many, many times before. So why not skip that and get to the good stuff?
Writer-director Joo-hwan Kim (Midnight Runners) handles his camera competently and does seem to know where he wants to go, but The Divine Fury might have been better off getting there sooner. The meditative opening is handsomely crafted, suggesting that this film will plumb the depths of soul-searching; while that would also have been welcome, nuance quickly begins to fade — and is never to be seen again — as trite soul-saving becomes the priority. Yong-hoo’s ensuing struggle with faith comes off more like lip service, as his priestly companion delivers little but empty platitudes. After the first possession victim’s head is engulfed in blue flame when touched by the stigmata wound and doused in holy water, the idea of this man being torn in his belief starts to ring false, weighing the proceedings down. Seriously — you just saw a guy’s head light on fire from water.
What’s left is the idea of an MMA fighter tackling demons — now that sounds like fun! — but after an early, visceral cage fight, Yong-hoo’s lethal skills strangely go on sabbatical. It’s clear that physical confrontation is inevitable, but while there’s plenty of opportunity to show off his stuff against back-flipping hell monsters, the sweet release of fists is consistently withheld; all it takes to complete each exorcism is Yong-hoo putting his hand on possessed heads, which never seems to be a big problem. In fact, the script has to invent reasons for him not to do this just so the encounters aren’t over before they begin. Only at the very end does this badass get to finally cut loose, becoming the comic book avenger he probably should have been all along. Resembling a saintly Ghost Rider, Yong-hoo deals out righteous blows to the Devil’s minions in a sequence that finally kicks the plodding film into gear. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too late.
What remains just seems to be going through the motions — a practicing churchgoer who neither revels in scripture nor exalts in the rites, but simply attends out of habit. Adding to this feeling is a stiff performance from Seo-Joon Park, who casually strolls from scene to scene with a confused look etched on his face. At worst he comes across as bored; at best, with merely detached interest. Sung-Ki Ahn fares better as the battle-tested Father Ahn, a grizzled priest who has grown weary from his fight against evil. Though it’s a familiar character, the older man finds the shades, and expertly conveys passion through weariness. Do-Hwan Woo also keeps things lively with a slick turn as the Dark Bishop, an insidious schemer with a forked tongue who makes the most out of his bloody sacrificial offerings.
A movie cannot serve two masters, however, and The Divine Fury is unlikely to transfix audiences, whether they’re looking for the soul-searching or soul-sucking. As an origin story it does little to establish characters or thrills, but that knock-down, drag-out ending does imply the potential of more compelling things in the future. Genre fans can only pray.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.