The dark but dryly humorous film Hail to Hell begins with a macabre back alley birthday party in which the birthday girl, Sun-woo, is harassed and humiliated. The day designated for celebration is likely the worst day of her life, leaving her covered in smashed birthday cake.
Sun-woo, played by Bang Hyo-rin, forms an unlikely alliance with another student, Na-mi, played by Oh Woo-ri, a girl determined to kill herself. The plan is for both of them to die, although they agree Na-mi should go first. However, instead of dying they decide to take revenge on Chae-lin the leader of the bullies, played by Jung Hi-ju. Chae-lin moved to Seoul and seems to a bright new life, which they want to destroy by telling everyone how awful she is. They travel to Seoul to avenge their suffering, only to find their enemy drastically transformed. Chae-lin has joined a religious group where she earns points for repenting and she’s sorry for what she’s done. At first Hail to Hell seems to be a classic revenge story, but then the film, written and directed by Lim Oh-jeong, takes a quirky and paradoxical turn.
“To me, life is nothing but a giant irony,” said Lim. “It can be unbearably terrible and constantly perplexing. Yet, once in a while, there are moments of brilliance that make you feel lucky to be alive. Life is a mix of light and darkness, of heaven and hell. That was the absolute truth I wanted to ruminate on, and I wanted to capture that irony in many of the elements of the film.”
Na-mi and Sun-woo share an existence they can only describe as hellish, but at least they know the terrain. At the religious shelter they meet others seeking to escape hell on earth and achieve heaven through faith and good deeds. However, this religious sect is not immune to power struggles and there too the powerless are treated poorly. All the characters in this film suffer and seek misguided solutions. In the end becoming open and vulnerable to each other is what saves Sun-woo and Na-mi. Lim said she wanted “to capture the moment when individuals wandering in the darkness in agony, whose nature can both be good and evil, reach out to each other, empathize with the pain of others, stand in solidarity and shine their light upon one another.”
Her film offers an interesting look at bullying, what prompts some people to bully and what makes others a likely target. It’s also a fresh take on the fraught territory of adolescent female friendship, which can be complicated and is not always kind.
“Throughout my short films I have consistently explored the friendship among women of different generations,” said Lim. “For me, female friendship is the topic that can cover the most complex and multi-layered emotions. I believe it allows us to scrutinize the essence of relationships as the gap between understanding and lack of understanding ― including tender adoration, acute jealousy, childish group dynamics, and passionate solidarity ― is blurred together and revealed. I feel that meaningful life change becomes possible for each individual when people in such relationships can see others the way they are, acknowledge them, and empathize with each other.”
Lim decided to make teens the protagonists in her first feature film because of the anxiety and feelings of isolation that today’s teens face, as they compete mercilessly for an obscure future. These pressures can push them to the edge.
“If there can be a moment when we can begin to confess our inadequacies openly and accept each other as we are, we may be able to survive and make our way through this hellish world, even if we cannot change it immediately,” she said. “I wanted to portray this possibility in a story of a transformative relationship. I hope that the girls’ extraordinary liveliness can encourage the lonely individuals who may encounter this film somewhere.”
Na-mi is almost seduced by the warm, although deceptive, family vibes of the religious group. She refers to herself as weak, but it’s not true.
“In the religious community, she sees the possibility that someone may understand her as she is and share her pain,” said Lim. “So, Na-mi, who has put up a tough façade all this time, opens up and calls herself weak. However, it is only when she realizes Sun-woo is the one to whom she must open up and apologize that Na-mi’s true courage is revealed. She takes the first step toward addressing her fear by admitting her cowardice and empathizing with Sun-woo, who must find it hard to forgive her. The time Na-mi spends with Sun-woo eventually allows her to cast off the oppressive label of weakness.”
Since the film deals with sensitive social issues such as suicide, school bullying and cults, Lim took care not to sensationalize them.
“In particular, we tried to minimize violence so that the scenes would not feel like secondary victimization to people who had been affected by similar experiences,” she said. “We did a lot of research and interviews to get a different perspective on the subject matter, and it was quite difficult to find the right balance between reality and fiction.”
Making her first feature film was a challenge, but one Lim embraced with confidence. She expressly cast actresses with shorter resumes.
“As independent filmmaking allowed for a relatively free production environment, I wanted to make this a film for and by those who were outside the mainstream,” said Lim. “It was the reason why I sought out undiscovered underdogs. I wanted to capture the raw and challenging energy produced by a collective of new talents. I have always worked with new or amateur actors in my short films, so I was pretty confident with what I was doing.”
She was happy to have accomplished actor Park Sung-hoon take the role of a flawed religious leader.
“Myung-ho, played by Park Sung-hoon, seems to be good-natured and has a smile on his face all the time,” said Lim “But this character has to reveal his twisted, evil side in an instant. It was a role that required both innocence and madness, so the casting was not easy. However, after meeting and talking with Sung-hoon, I felt that he understood the tone and manner of the entire film, as well as his part, better than anyone. Having him was like having an entire army by my side. Seeing a completely different side of this actor on the TV series The Glory, which he filmed after Hail to Hell, gave me more confidence in his endless potential.”
Viewers can also see Bang Hyo-rin in Aema and Jung Hi-ju in Trolley. Park’s many drama roles include The Glory, Not Others and The Kidnapping Day. Lim’s short films include The Shelter, No More No Less, Green Fever and A Daytime Picnic. Hail to Hell currently airs at the London Korean Film Festival.