There are many exorcism films, but there is only one The Divine Fury, the South Korean action-horror film having its North American premiere tonight at Fantasia 2019…
…Let’s face it. No exorcism film has done it as well as The Exorcist, few have come close, and it’s become a genre that’s grown tired and is in need of fresh ideas. Well, The Divine Fury is exactly the adrenaline boost the exorcism sub-genre needs, injected right into its face! Written/directed by Joo-hwan Kim (Midnight Runners), The Divine Fury is the epic story of a UFC fighter named Yong-hoo (Seo-Joon Park), who lost both of his parents along with his faith in God when he was a kid. While coming home from his latest fight, Yong-hoo experiences violent stigmata that leaves an ugly wound on his hand. Desperate to rid himself of the supernatural infection, Yong-hoo visits a priest, Father Ahn (Sung-Ki Ahn) and finds himself thrown into a fight for the world against demonic forces.
Kim does in the first few minutes of The Divine Fury what so many filmmakers struggle to do with an entire film: he establishes two characters who we love in Yong-hoo, and his father (Seung-Joon Lee), then breaks our damn hearts, all in just the first few minutes. What is so tragic about this opening is that Yong-hoo’s mother died giving birth to him, but his father doesn’t blame him. These are two people trying to move on from tragedy and live a happy life, until a pair of demons swoop in and take that all away during a jaw-dropping stunt that leads to the loss of Yong-hoo’s father. It’s a tear jerking opening that introduces elements of drama, fantasy, horror, and pulse-pounding action that sets up for an epic experience.
Like every great story, it all starts with the characters. After the loss of his father and his faith in God, Yong-hoo has become a champion fighter, existing only for himself. But he isn’t a bad guy. So, there’s a creepy voice whispering in his head constantly, urging him towards revenge and violence in fights. That’s okay, we all need motivation, right? Park is a force, portraying a character that secretly wants to be good, but is fraught with flaws. The Divine Fury is a film that deals with coming to terms with loss and moving on, so it’s no wonder that when Yong-hoo meets Father Ahn, a father/son bond begins to form between them, and Yong-hoo is set on a path to heal. Ahn himself is painfully endearing, a sweet old, demon-fighting guy who admires Yong-hoo and wants to bring him back to his faith. These are characters who possess you, and had me rooting for them with everything I had.
The Divine Fury might actually be the first film I’ve ever seen that makes the occasional convincing case for why God does what he does. I’m still not a believer (sorry not sorry), but The Divine Fury is a highly intelligent film that explores spiritualism and the will in all of us to believe in something greater, for the world and for our own self. There’s a constant back and forth, even in the face of demonic entities, where Father Ahn is attempting to convince Yong-hoo that his belief in God is still there, if he just looks for it. The relationship between them is so beautifully heartbreaking, I’ll admit I teared up once or twice, but let the record state, I never cried! Kim is an expert at crafting drama amidst over the top fantasy.
Some films say they have everything, but The Divine Fury really does. I wasn’t kidding before when I said The Divine Fury is unlike any other exorcism film you’ve ever seen. This film makes exorcisms fun again. Kim marries a blend of genres into this dark fairytale, full of magic, monsters and maniacs in this unique horror adventure. From the moment Yong-hoo’s father dies, he is searching for redemption, and he’s given his chance, with ass-kicking stigmata that turns his hands into literal lethal weapons for demons. Eventually, Yong-hoo teams up with Father Ahn, and we watch as they go from possession to possession, doing their best to tear demons from their hosts by any means necessary. The Divine Fury is like Karate Kid meets The Exorcist, the perfect combo to reanimate an exorcism genre which has been lifeless for so long.
Kim keeps things fresh throughout the two-hour runtime by throwing a myriad of concepts and unique demons at us. The Divine Fury is inventive as hell. Our heroes aren’t going from room to room to throw holy water on some sick girl. They do that, but they also face shadows that can climb on the walls, voodoo torture implemented through gratuitous eye and nose bleeds and giant, demonic worms made entirely out of arms, which is one of the most frightening things I’ve seen this year, by the way. There’s plenty of variety with the demons that the two must fight, all of whom have their own personalities, including one which reminded me of Raimi’s Evil Dead deadites, gleeful and cackling and vicious. Some of the CG used in these scenes is questionable, but the practical make-up itself is superb, really bringing some of these monstrous entities to chilling life.
Despite all my praise, I don’t want to oversell The Divine Fury. It’s a great story with badass characters and a fresh take on exorcisms, but for those expecting a balls to the wall action epic, this isn’t it. Not quite. Kim allows for a lot of downtime throughout the film, which is great for character building, but occasionally causes the kinetic energy of the film to grind to a screeching halt. There’s actually a lot less action in the film than you would think, with much of that being saved for the Mortal Kombat style finale. The big bad demon, Ji-sin (Do-Hwan Woo), also has so little presence in the film, I haven’t even mentioned him until now. Ji-sin acts as a sort of Omni-present villain, showing up through possessions and the like, but is never fully active in the story until the very end. This hurts the film a bit, because it causes the mission of Ahn and Yong-hoo to feel aimless and meandering without a strong villain to help drive things.
Still, The Divine Fury is the sort of grand-scale horror adventure that we rarely see. This film combines martial arts and supernatural terror almost seamlessly, and will have most aching for the inevitable sequel.