Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Flaming Fist of Christ Compels You!: The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자, 2019)

Park Seo-joon in Saja (2019).

What if the titular protagonist of Constantine (2005) (Keanu Reeves) was a mixed-martial arts fighter? What if he was really, really good? What if he could burn demons with his bare hand? Writer-director Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자, 2019) answers these questions we never thought we had.

The stoically adorable Park Seo-joon plays protagonist Park Yong-hoo, who at a young age loses his saintly righteous father (Lee Seung-joon) despite a night of fervent prayer and is thereafter consumed by a hatred for the Catholic Church. Twenty years later, he’s an undefeated MFC welterweight champion. On the flight back from a bout in L.A., he dreams of picking up a crucifix that burns his right hand; he can’t shake it off. He wakes to a painful, bleeding palm with marks underneath.

Each night he’s spiritually attacked by demons, and each morning his palm is bloody and in pain. Doctors are useless, so he turns to a blind medium, who directs him to Father Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki), an exorcist from the Vatican; Ahn’s performance projects a depthless wellspring of endless Christian love. Park catches him in the middle of being choked to death by a possessed man after the assistant exorcist, Father Choi (Choi Woo-sik), loses his courage and hightails it. The fight scene between the acrobatic possessed man, previously so formidable, and the champion fighter who easily disposes of him is cathartically comedic, with the fixed long-shot camera emphasizing Park’s matter-of-fact, even lackadaisical attack. But what really finishes off the possessed man, to everyone’s surprise, is Park’s palm, which, combined with a douse of holy water, immolates the guy’s head. It turns out those marks are a Christ-like stigma, which is rather odd for a virulent atheist. Apparently, that oneiric crucifix was given him by his dear departed dad, who still believes in the goodness of his son. Park decides to offer some muscle for the elderly Ahn, and off they go.

As many critics have noted, The Divine Fury is not a particularly scary film, for though there are some classic horror-film camera angles, only one of them pays off as a jump scare, and not a very surprising one at that. Yet there’s atmosphere to spare thanks to Koo Ja-wan’s music. The reigning emotion is dread, not of demons and such, but of the possibility that Park might fall afoul of clichéd plotting. The main heavy, the Satanic Black Bishop (Woo Do-hwan), lays many traps to waylay Park, him of little faith, and every single time, he comes to his senses just before going over the brink. These tests of faith are in fact the main source of conflict in the action sequences.

Ahn Sung-ki in Saja (2019)

This brings us to the film’s theme, almost literally the oldest one in the book, one that’s occupied innumerable artists, including Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life (2011): why do good people die? It’s a simple question with a simple answer (because God’s ways, though full of love, are mysterious), provided here by Ahn, but that doesn’t detract from the question’s profundity, or from the answer’s cold comfort. It’s not a cliché if it takes a lifetime to truly understand it.

What makes the film stand out is that it works on both a theological level and a secular, psychological one, with each bolstering the other in a way few films attempt. It may not be wholly successful, but the ambition elevates The Divine Fury to more than just a midnight movie. Park comes into his own and can fully wield his power only when he accepts God’s arrangements and his father’s intercession on his behalf; only then does he walk into the second half of the final boss fight with a flaming fist. (That fight, by the way, is energetically choreographed, much better than the preceding build-up fight scenes, and Woo’s makeup as a possessed reptilian zombie is a nightmarish marvel.) Divested of its theology, his acceptance is also an acceptance of loss, a transformation of grieving anger into grieving potency.

But the theology is slightly off-kilter. Ahn tells Park that his hatred of Catholicism is but the flip side of his deep faith in the past, so that hating God becomes a form of faith. Sure, perhaps, but you at least have to participate in some sort of religious rite, else you aren’t a Catholic, you’re a Protestant. Constantine’s premise is more consistent: its protagonist is a non-believer who can see angels, demons, and half-breeds (at one point, Tilda Swinton’s Archangel Gabriel says to him that God requires “[b]elief. . . You know, and there’s a difference”), and though he doesn’t believe, he can still perform exorcisms because he uses impersonal tools, like a normal exorcist.

By sacrificing elements such as world-building (Constantine’s signature strength) and scares, the film leaves room for an intricate and seldom-seen nexus of psychology and theology, backed up by cathartic action sequences. We all have inner demons that we hope to God we can overcome – who among us wouldn’t welcome the chance to do so by punching them in the face?

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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