[Fantasia Festival 2019 Review] The Divine Fury

I don’t know what’s in the air right now. Maybe we’ve hit a global malaise where we’re afraid of things not within our power. An anxiety of not being able to control our present, let alone our future, but possession, ghosts, cults and demons seem to be the theme du jour right now. I’ve seen so many screeners recently of possession, some good, some funny, some epic, some confounding, and some just plain terrible. This newest import from South Korea airs slightly on the side of good, face-punching fun. But it’s not the stellar match I was hoping for. Written and directed by Joo-hwan Kim, The Divine Fury is about a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter who gains divine powers to combat a rising evil force.

Yes, you read that correctly. He kicks ass for the lord. Well…sorta.

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You see, as a child, Yong-hoo (Park Seo-joon) was a fairly devout Christian child living with his widowed police officer father (Seung-joon Lee). During what should have been a routine stop, the father is killed when the young couple he pulls over turns out to be a demonic force that races off, dragging him with them before ultimately running over his body in a disturbingly crunchy fashion. Yong-hoo runs to the local church and prays all night for God to save his father and when his father dies, he turns his back on Christianity and God.

Twenty years later has turned Yong-hoo into a 6’1”, 170 lbs of hunkadude. He’s now a celebrated MMA champion, 17-0; undefeated. We’re reintroduced to him as he’s about to square off in the ring, but when he sees the cross tattoo on his im, sees a cross tattoo on his opponent, he hears slithery voices in his head telling him to get revenge against God. So he does. He pummels the opponent into a bloody mess before the ref can pull him away and declare him a winner.

Obviously, this hot dude is full of angst.

That night, after a dream of his father, his hands start to mysteriously bleed. Doctors can’t help him, so he turns to a local shaman who tells him he has the stigmata and that there are demons circling him. These demonic voices whisper to him and are only kept at bay by his father’s ring, which he wears around his neck. .

Meanwhile, exorcist extraordinaire Father Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) has been sent from the Vatican to chase down the Dark Bishop (the equally handsome Do-Hwan Woo), who has been implanting demons in victims around Seoul and is amassing power to…I’m not exactly sure. Power maybe? Money? Everlasting life is mentioned at one point? Nefarious purposes, for sure. Eventually Yong-hoo and Father Ahn meet up and are forced to join forces. Yong-hoo needs a surrogate father to bring him peace and Father Ahn needs a new assistant when his previous one Choi (Woo-sik Choi) takes off running.

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On paper, The Divine Fury sounds ridiculous and action-packed. I mean, it’s MMA+Exorcism and the synopsis promises punching and demonic ass-kicking. And, sure, we get that. Particularly in the finale showdown that turns, however briefly, into a creature feature. But while there are moments of this bonkers concept, it takes itself incredibly seriously. With an opening that orphans our hero, who now has a huge chip on his shoulders, Joo-hwan Kim’s film focuses more on Yong-hoo’s internal conflict. And yet, for a movie that’s 129 minutes long, it doesn’t sufficiently give its protagonist moments to question whether he doesn’t believe in God or actively hates Him.

Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the movie were more action-packed. It has a couple set pieces where the cinematography and the action is given some time to be fun and silly, but they are too far and too few. So we’re left in this morose middle section where it’s neither too fun/scary/action-oriented nor is it a deep meditation on faith (or lack thereof). I did find aspects of the story touching, particularly in the first act. It’s just the middle section where Yong-hoo isn’t punching things to death and the story turns monotonous that really sunk it for me.

The Divine Fury tries to walks that tender balance between being a fun action horror without turning into a parody and a meditative examination of grief…it just doesn’t always tread it successfully. I wish it had leaned a bit further into what you’d expect from a movie in which a man uses his fist and stigmata blood to burn demons to a crisp.