J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Divine Fury: The Priest and the MMA Fighter

No matter how lapsed they think they are, lapsed Catholics are still Catholics. MMA champion Park Yong-hu denies it, but he is a perfect case in point. For years, he claimed he did not believe in God, but he was really just angry over his father’s death. He would still seem like an unlikely candidate to carry the stigmata, but there it is anyway. Despite his skepticism, Park gets pulled into an epic battle of G vs. E in Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury, the closing film of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Park’s father was a devout policeman, who was killed by a demonically possessed motorist during a routine traffic stop. Alas, Park’s prayers were not enough to save him. Subsequently, Park turned against God and allowed his heart to harden against the rest of humanity. Then one day, his palm starts bleeding from a wound that refuses to close. Starting with doctors and proceeding to shamans, Park is mysteriously directed to Father Ahn, a grizzled Vatican exorcist.

The good Father has returned to Korea to hunt for the Dark Bishop, a powerful servant of demonic powers. He has been responsible for a wave of frighteningly severe possessions, like the one Park walks in on, saving Father Ahn with the power of his stigmata. Much to his surprise, he does not dislike Father Ahn. In fact, he almost feels compelled to help him, but the forces of evil, led by Ji-sin, the Dark Bishop himself, will be relentless and vicious.

Relentless is indeed the word. Divine Fury has some of the most intense and exhausting exorcism scenes since the mother of all exorcism films, Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Arguably, Jang Jae-hyun’s The Priests is even more frightening, because it leans into the Catholic imagery and demonic archetypes to a greater extent, but Divine is still all kinds of scary and intense.

There is no question veteran thesp Ahn Sung-ki is the rock on which Divine Fury is built. He is absolutely terrific as the weary Father Ahn. We are used to seeing movie exorcists who are either blind believers or mired in a crisis of faith, but Father Ahn is particularly compelling, because he has faith as well as self-doubts, making him acutely human. For the better part of the film, Park Seo-joon is rather standoffish as Park Yong-hu, but he humanizes the fighter when the film really needs him to. In contrast, Woo Do-hwan is never less than coldly, clammily sinister as the Dark Bishop.

This is scary stuff, but the best news is Kim avoids nearly all the clichés we usually get from horror movie conclusions. However, the film flat out promises a spin-off sequel featuring a minor supporting character. Based on the quality of everything proceeding it, that qualifies as good news. Indeed, Divine Fury is definitely A-list K-horror, along with The Priests and The Wailing. Very highly recommended for fans of demonic horror, The Divine Fury opens this Friday (8/16) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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