Saja (English title: The Divine Fury). 2019. Directed & Written by Kim Joo-hwan.
Starring Park Seo-jun, Ahn Sung-ki, Woo Do-hwan, Choi Woo-sik, Kim Si-eun, & Jasper Cho.
Rated R / 129 minutes
Action / Horror / Thriller
Disclaimer: Moderate spoilers within
Director Kim Joo-hwan (a.k.a Jason Kim) has been building quite a career over the past decade. He began with a couple dramas, Goodbye My Smile (2010) and Koala (2013), then broke out with a stellar action-comedy in 2017, Midnight Runners. Clearly his directing and writing styles run the gamut of genre. His latest, The Divine Fury— the North American premiere was held at Fantasia Festival on August 1st— is a mix of martial arts action, a religious character study, and extra creepy horror.
The film follows Yong-hu (Park Seo-jun). His father was taken from him at a young age after a horrible accident, causing him to lose his Christian faith. He grew up to become a fierce MMA champion which brings him a world of money and privilege. When he wakes up one day with stigmata-like wounds in his hands, he finds his way to a priest named Father Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki). They discover together that Yong-hoo’s destiny has always been bigger than being a famous fighter. They encounter various demonic creatures in a battle between good and evil, in search of a Dark Bishop, Ji-sin (Woo Do-hwan), who’s gathering hideous forces on Earth.
Aside from the great bits of martial arts ass kicking and the genuinely terrifying demons, Kim’s film is a portrait of faltering faith. The Divine Fury has enough unique qualities to set it apart from the countless exorcism flicks already out there, and the story’s focus on how a person can turn anger / hatred into a positive force for good is an awesome, unusually uplifting narrative to find in the religious horror sub-genre.
“I don’t believe in those things”
A major struggle with religion, represented in Yong-hu, is that so many of us— Father Gore included— can’t reconcile the reality of suffering with the idea it’s “all part of God‘s plan.” Little Yong-hu was told to trust in the Lord to save his father’s life, then he was expected to keep on trusting after his father was taken from him. The early scene where he, as a boy, rages at the priest who’d told him to pray is moving in its raw honesty. His struggle with faith leads him to wrestle with anger the rest of his life.
Yong-hu’s sudden stigmata wounds lead to him being tempted towards the dark side. He experiences a Skywalkeresque fight against demonic entities hoping to lure him across the threshold away from goodness. Before the wounds appear, he has a dream of a burning cross and sees himself like a fallen angel with wings of black smoke dissipating from his back, like God has expelled Yong-hu. Eerie voices whisper in his ear, urging to give into his worst urges. Easy to conjure the image of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden tempted by a serpentine Lucifer once some demons reveal a snaky appearance.
This temptation towards evil is a good moral metaphor, regardless of whether it’s in a religious context. As a grown man, Yong-hu channels his displaced anger over the death of his father into his MMA career, which is unhealthy. When he meets Father Ahn his hate has a chance of being channelled in a more appropriate direction, represented by religious good, in opposition to symbols Kim uses to stand in for those of evil.
The name of Ji-sin’s club, Babylon, is an apt use of biblical symbolism. Christianity sees Babylon as symbolic of evil, a defiance of God. It was a place that worshipped pagan gods, where sexual immorality was practised in many forms. The idea of the club Babylon in this light is made stronger with the snake imagery. In Christianity’s biblical narrative, serpents appear all over the place. The snake is usually strongly associated with Lucifer. Some of The Divine Fury‘s demons have snake features like scaly skin, most noticeably later in the film when there’s an interesting transformation— Father Gore won’t spoil it, just know it’s magnificently unsettling.
Another interesting aspect is the contemporary nature of the demons emerging from Babylon. First is the modern club, an environment full of perceived moral vices, concealing the ancient demonic snake portal in its subterranean levels. Secondly, Ji-sin is seen as an immoral symbol of modernity, dealing in shady business. His status as a Dark Bishop is described by how he’ll “possess people, take away their bodies and souls, and offer them to the devil.” This feels like a parallel between Ji-sin and shady nightclub owners who corrupt by pushing drugs into his establishment. The demons likewise try to ingratiate themselves to Yong-hu via his high-profile MMA career, offering greedy amounts of money to sucker him. Everything linked to the club and Ji-sin is coded as sinful. Moreover, Ji-sin is a dark mirror of where Yong-hu could end up should he not reject the hatred in his heart.
come to me.”
Father Ahn’s purpose is to help Yong-hu hone his energy towards a positive place instead of descending into vengeful hatred. He helps guide the younger man, who teeters on the edge of either capable of doing good or being used as a tool for evil. Perhaps the best image is the way Kim represents anger converted into positive change with Yong-hu’s hidden gift, blue fists of flame— fire imagery usually being associated with Lucifer and, in turn, evil— that the fighter uses to destroy demons, resulting in an incredible martial arts action sequence near the finale. The image of Yong-hu using his fiery gift to vanquish evil is a powerfully positive one.
To go along with Ahn helping Yong-hu see the peril in giving in to his anger is Kim’s inclusion of a Christian saint at the end of the film. Another priest, whom we originally see helping Ahn, receives a letter from his fellow priest. Curiously, it’s a postcard with a depiction of Saint Jerome and a lion on the front. For those unaware, Jerome is often depicted in art alongside a lion, based on the tale of him healing its paw in the wilderness— the tale goes that he removed a thorn from the lion’s paw, in effect soothing the animal’s anger / pain. This is portrayed twofold in The Divine Fury.
There’s Yong-hu removing the demonic blade from Ji-sin’s heart, relieving him of his evil possession and putting him out of his misery. Most importantly is Father Ahn figuratively removing the thorn from Yong-hu’s paw by helping him learn how to redirect his anger into a positive force. Again, a constructive image full of power that reflects how we can either choose to let the pain of our lives warp us into tools of negativity, or we can overcome by learning to be an agent for good in this world and helping others.No matter if we don’t believe in God we can still fight for good over evil, like Yong-hu, even if we’re not smashing actual demons. Kim’s film is decidedly based in religious imagery and symbolism, yet there’s a general moral debate independent of religion and spiritual faith at the core of the screenplay, concerning the different ways our lives can go when faced with adversity.
Those who are looking for an all-out martial arts action-horror mashup may be slightly disappointed, only because there’s so much more to The Divine Fury and the focus on fight choreography is second to the strong themes at play. There’s absolutely great fight sequences, they just aren’t the sole focus.
Yong-hu’s moral battle is one with which many of us are familiar. Everyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one has questioned the existence of good in the world, either from a religious worldview or not, and this pain propels us in different directions. Most probably won’t have to make choices as serious as Yong-hu, deciding if we’ll use our flaming fists to fight the worst of this world or for more greedy, vile purposes. We will, however, have to face our own moral dilemmas, though the fate of all existence won’t hang in the balance. We’ll still have to live with our actions, and at the end of the day how we choose to let our pain and our anger affect not only us but everything / everyone around us ultimately shapes what kind of force we’ll be in this world, positive or not.