What if the titular protagonist of Constantine (2005) 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 LA, 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, embodying endless Christian love), exorcist from the Vatican. 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.
Turns out those marks are a Christ-like stigma, which is rather odd for a professed 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, it’s 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, he of little faith, and every single time, Park 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.
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.
What makes the film stand out is that it works on both a theological level and a secular, psychological one. 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. This contrasts unfavorably with Constantine, who’s a non-believer (he doesn’t believe, he knows) but can still perform exorcisms because he uses impersonal tools, like a normal exorcist.
By sacrificing elements such as worldbuilding (Constantine‘s signature strength) and scares, the film leaves room for an intricate nexus of psychology and theology backed up by cathartic action sequences. Who among us hasn’t wanted to crush our inner demons with a punch in the face?
This piece has been published at Critics at Large.