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BUSAN, South Korea – The Woman’s bark (or more precisely, howl) is louder than its bite, although fairly large chunks of human meat and offal get chewed off over the course of this nasty schlock-horror film that indulges in, while purporting to indict, male sado-chauvinism. The story, adapted by horror director Lucky McKee (May) from co-writer Jack Ketchum‘s novella, depicts in garish style a family that captures a wild woman to make her an object of spectacle, sex and torture. The film flirts with the idea of questioning what society deems savage and civilized, but ultimately, the allegorical undertones are not developed intelligently enough to elevate the hammer-blunt but garden variety violence to anything genuinely radical.
Never mind that the material is too unsavory and filming technique too rough-and-ready for regular cinema-goers, the film’s buzz among cult and genre circles has spread like a forest fire since the audience-walkout incident at Sundance, if only out of curiosity over what all the fuss is about. DVD life will run rampant.
A tackily edited but titillating montage sequence introduces the unnamed woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) roaming the woods in tattered but revealing huntress fashion. She is supposed to belong to a primitive tribe in the American northeast and flashbacks to a Romulus-like upbringing insinuates her animal instincts. Next thing, smooth-talking, well-to-do lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) who lives on a farm nearby, spots her during a hunt. Here, McKee shows most control and flair in mounting anticipation and dread as Cleek mobilizes his family to clean out the barn as if he’s bringing back a pony as a surprise Christmas present, while lingering on the contraptions Cleek prepares to restrain his catch.
The first half hour or so when the Cleeks come face to face with their captive elicits strongest reactions. Snarling and yowling with primal passion, McIntosh conveys the woman’s otherness with visceral impact. It challenges viewers to consider what to do if one had free rein over another human being, flagged by son Brian’s question “do we really get to keep her?” There’s shock value to how obscenely Cleek baits and debases her without actually torturing her in the conventional sense, especially sensationalized by the glib irony of his gloatingly sanctimonious utterances, like “this is our project…to civilize her…save her from her base instincts.” Each family member’s attitude, from wife Belle (Angela Bettis)’s lobotomized acquiesence to elder daughter Peg (Lauren Ashley Carter)’s sympathy and suppressed indignation, to son Brian (Zach Rand)’s creepy arousal suggestively reveals unnatural power politics at home.
By the standards of hardcore horror-splatter, there are about three or four scenes in the whole duration that startle for its blitz-timing, its graphic nature, and it’s defiance of conventional logic, which paradoxically works because it is consistent with the film’s exploration of feral nature. However, after the salaciously long venting of Cleek’s and Brian’s cruelty, the anticipated reckoning arrives too late, too indiscriminately and too abrupt in the way victims or offenders alike are dispatched.
McKee claimed that his work “is designed to incite fear, shock, nervousness, dismay, anxiety and disgust. It is designed to make you question what it is to be civilized, what it is to be feral, and all shades of gray in between. “Methinks the director doth protest too much. Had the focus remained with the dynamics between captor and captive, it might achieve some psychological insight. As it were, the plot development dwells too much on Cleek’s misogyny and depravity through his treatment of other women: not just his wife and daughter, but his secretary and even Peg’s geography teacher Genevieve (Carlee Baker) Not only is it banal in a kitchen sink way, it’s just a reiteration of the same argument. Any ambivalence about what is construed as “civilized” or “savage” is bulldozed by his limited repertoire of punches, slaps and sexual assault, which instantly makes one take sides against Cleek, the blatant symbol of oppressive patriarchy.
Despite some critics and viewers championing The Woman as a serious feminist film, it barely stands its ground before such works as Abdellatif Kechich‘s Black Venus and Brilliante Mendoza‘s Kinatay. The former is a more biting and discomfiting condemnation of misogyny and bigotry in its exploitation of an African woman as a circus animal. The latter truly frightens and disturbs with its violence to a woman, because it stems from a deep moralistic core and raises authentic social issues. In fact, The Woman flagrantly displays its prurience in the female physical images projected, such as the woman who’s tied spreadeagled and naked like in a bondage flick, or Genevieve who inexplicably dresses and carries herself like a floozie.
Notwithstanding the extremity of the plot, the whole cast puts in ardent and believable performances. McIntosh deserves applause for letting herself come completely unhinged, conveying something distinctly creature-like in her eyes. Bridges gleefully demonstrates what seems outrageously inhumane to most people is simply matter-of-fact to Cleek. Bettis, Carter, even Shyla Molhusen who plays the young Cleek Darlin with pluck all bring personality and feeling to their rigidly symbolic roles.
Technical credits are adequate but director’s technique is to rub everything in the audience’s face like glaring wide angle shots, sensational crosscutting that over-state the irony of juxtaposed scenes of torture and tame domesticity, or the use of ugly 70s-style superimposed shots in the opening montage. Sound and unabated rock-metal music with unsubtle lyrics are all torture and no porn.
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