Two bullied girls seek revenge on their tormenter in this dark South Korean comedy

Hail To Hell

Source: Busan International Film Festival

‘Hail To Hell’

Dir/scr: Lim Oh-Jeong South Korea. 2022. 109mins

If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, that’s nothing compared to a teenager who feels they have been done an injustice. For her debut feature, South Korean filmmaker Lim Oh-Jeong takes this idea and fleshes it out into a wider morality fable about cruelty and corruption, forgiveness and absolution. In distilling these ideas through the charmingly haphazard experiences of two female high-school student outcasts united by a desire for revenge, Hail To Hell wears its commentary lightly, putting a welcome emphasis on dark comedy rather than dour soapboxing. 

Traditional notions of faith and morality are turned on their head

The concept of a bullied individual turning on their tormentors is well-worn, and Hail To Hell riffs on both the broad comedy of films like Mean Girls and sharper genre elements of works like Carrie and The Craft. This familiarity may help the film travel following it Busan New Currents debut, as might its female-empowerment angle, and it certainly marks Lim out as an intriguing new voice that fans of Asian cinema may wish to seek out.

An opening sequence establishes the film’s core observation, that things are never quite as they appear. A lone schoolgirl prowls through a deserted building in the dark, her ragged breath betraying her fear. Suddenly, she is beset by her classmates, who pop streamers and present her with a birthday cake. The tension dissipates for a moment until, suddenly, the mood turns again and the kids force the girl to her knees, shove the cake in her face and run off. 

This moment will be revisited, albeit from a slightly different POV, towards the end of the film. The sequence bookends a high-energy jaunt from the sleepy North Chungcheong town of Suanbo to the city of Seoul by the buillied girl, Sun-woo (an enigmatic Hyo-rin Bang) and the more feisty Na-mi (Oh Woo-ri) who was once a mean girl herself but was then ostracised by her popular best friend, Chae-rin (Jung Yi-ju). The pair have made a pact to die by suicide but, before they do, decide to track down and take their revenge on Chae-rin, who is, according to her Instagram feed, living the high-life in the capital.

Their surprising discovery that Chae-rin has, in fact, joined a Christian church and is repenting for her past sins reframes the narrative and forces Sun-woo and Na-mi to question both her and their own motives in seeking redemption. While they try to decide whether to forgive Chae-rin, who seems desperate for their clemency, Lim teases out increasingly murky details about the church. A scoreboard on the wall shows Chae-rin is close to winning… something. The church’s largely working class congregation is encouraged to make large donations. There is vague talk of trips to paradise for the worthy.

It becomes clear that, in this strange place, forgiveness is regarded as a kind of currency; something which gives Sun-woo and Na-mi a transactional power over Chae-rin. As they grapple with what to do with that new-found authority — it would, after all, be so easy to punish her if she wasn’t so meekly apologetic — they find themselves at the centre of a series of increasingly outlandish events in which traditional notions of faith and morality are turned on their head. And with their horizons being forcibly widened, the girls begin to contemplate their severity of their own sins and path to possible redemption. 

While Hail To Hell should likely come with a trigger warning thanks to the girls’ frank discussions of how best they should end their lives, Lim handles these elements of the narrative with care. Her screenplay never judges and, while there is plenty of humour in this unpredictable adventure, it is not at the girls’ expense. And although this journey ends exactly where you expect it to, Sun-woo and Na-mi are firmly at the wheel until the end.

Production company: Korean Academy Of Film Arts

International sales: M-line Distribution

Producer: Kim Se-hun ,  Back Kyoung-won

Cinematography: Grim Jung

Production design:  Kim Kyoung-won

Editing:  Choi Kyoung-yoon

Music: Koo Ja-wan

Main cast: Bang Hyo-rin, Oh Woo-ri, Jung Yi-ju