Svaha: The Sixth Finger (사바하, Jang Jae-hyun, 2019)

The thing about prophesies and the prophets who proclaim them, is that they only have power if people choose to believe in them. “Faith” can become a convenient cover for those who’d rather not explain themselves, a mechanism for manipulating sometimes vulnerable people looking for a greater truth or a purpose in their lives. Svaha: The Sixth Finger’s (사바하) dogged pastor is intent on investigating religious crimes and exploiting spiritual charlatans but he of course has his own agenda, that mostly being that he’s keen to get money off his clients who are in turn hoping to bolster their authority by rooting out “heresies”.

Leader of the Far Eastern Religious Research Institute, a kind of religious detective agency employing only himself, an undercover assistant, and a “deaconess” secretary, Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae) makes his money flagging up dodgy and/or exploitative practices connected with organised religion. According to him, freedom of religion is “overly” protected, and he is alone on the frontlines of a spiritual war against unscrupulous cultists. Though some kind of protestant, he often works for/against the Catholic Church and is good friends with a Buddhist monk who gives him a tip off about a weird sect he can’t get a handle on, Deer Hill. 

Meanwhile, a young girl, Geum-hwa (Lee Jae-in), explains to us that she was born with an “evil” twin clamped to her leg. The twin wasn’t expected to survive, but is still living with Geum-hwa and her family who keep her locked up in a shed like a beast. Rightly or wrongly, Geum-hwa connects her sister with the deaths of her parents which occurred fairly soon after the children were born. Her grandfather, with whom Geum-hwa now lives, never even registered the birth of a second child out of fear and shame, never expecting her to survive this long. When a truck hits a bridge and exposes the hidden body of a murdered teenager, the police start investigating too, eventually leading them to two young men loosely connected with the shady Buddhist cult. 

“This world is one big muddy mess”, according to the cultists at Deer Hill. It’s not difficult to see why people might be looking for spiritual reassurance in such a chaotic world, but it’s exactly that need that places like Deer Hill may be seeking to exploit. Nevertheless, the only thing that Park’s undercover agent turns up is that there doesn’t appear to be anything untoward. Deer Hill doesn’t accept offerings from its members and even gives money away to the needy. Tellingly, the real nitty gritty to Park’s clients is in doctrinal deviation, they only really want to know what kind of Buddhism it is that they do and if it’s in line with broader teachings of the faith. 

A further tip off leads them to the mysterious Je-seok (Jung Dong-hwan), a legendary Buddhist priest who studied in Japan but apparently devoted himself to the Independence movement and is said to have achieved enlightenment. Je-seok’s teachings are dark in the extreme, “Pain is the fruit of faith” goes his mantra, “pain purifies your blood”. He believes that he is the “light” that will conquer the “darkness” by snuffing out “snakes”. One of his disciples, brainwashed as a vulnerable young man and encouraged to do terrible things in the name of good, begins to doubt his teachings when confronted with a possible hole in his logic and the very real human cost of his strategy. 

Not quite as cynical as he seems, Park retains his faith. It’s ironic that all this is taking place at Christmas and centres on the prophesied birth of a child that threatens someone’s sense of personal power. Unlike most, Park has always regarded Christmas as a “sad” holiday, unable to forget that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the mass murder of innocent baby boys. He wonders where God is now and why he permits these things to happen. Park has faith that God sent Jesus into the world for the greater good, but Je-seok has convinced his followers that the same is true of him, that he has come to banish the darkness and that all their pain and suffering is fuel in a holy war. Their faith has been redirected and misused for the benefit of a false prophet, while his opposite number has been made to live a life of bestial misery solely because of superstitious prejudice. The police is a fairly irrelevant presence in this series of spiritual transgressions, but there is much less clarity to be had in “truth” than one might hope with “faith” the only solution in an increasingly uncertain world.


Svaha: The Sixth Finger is currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

International trailer (English subtitles)

Long Live the King (롱 리브 더 킹: 목포 영웅, Kang Yoon-sung, 2019)

long live the king poster 1Back in the good old days, gangsters used to make a case for themselves that they were standing up for the little guy and protecting those who couldn’t protect themselves. Of course that wasn’t quite the truth, but one can’t deny how closely small town thuggery and political office can resemble one another. Following his breakout hit The Outlaws, Kang Yoon-sung returns with web comic adaptation Long Live the King (롱 리브 더 킹: 목포 영웅, Long Live the King: Mokpo Yeongwoong), another unconventional comedy in which a surprisingly loveable rogue rediscovers his national pride and finds a more positive direction in which to channel his desire to be helpful.

Se-chool (Kim Rae-won) is a notorious thug with a traumatic past currently working with a local gang hired to clear a small protest of stall owners trying to cling on to a traditional market space in working class Mokpo where a developer wants to build a theme park and upscale skyscraper. A feisty young lawyer, So-hyun (Won Jin-a), is working with the protesters on their case and has no problem telling the gangsters where to get off. Impressed, Se-chool is smitten and starts to wonder if he’s on the wrong side but his attempts to get So-hyun’s attention – being strangely nice to the protestors, buying everyone lunch etc, spectacularly backfire. Only when he hears about another man, Hwang-bo (Choi Moo-sung), who used to be a gangster but has now reformed and become a social justice campaigner running a small not-for-profit cafe serving meals to the vulnerable, does he begin to see an opening, vowing to give up the gangster life and commit himself to serving the people of Mokpo.

The irony is that everyone seems to think that Se-chool has a hidden agenda, but his only agenda is the obvious one in that he wants to win So-hyun’s heart even if that means he has to shape up and learn to become a decent person rather than a heartless gangster thug. Known as the king of the nightlife, Se-chool is regarded as a slightly eccentric, good time guy, so his sudden desire to go “legit” is met with bemusement rather than surprise, but old habits are hard to shake and it takes a while for him to realise that trying to help people with his fists is not the best way to go about it. Punching out some punks making trouble in a cafe gets him an earful from the proprietress who explains that she owes a lot of money to the guys’ gang so Se-chool’s chivalry has probably caused her a series of potentially serious problems she assumes he won’t be on hand to help her out with. Nevertheless, he retains his desire to wade in and do his bit, becoming a surprise local hero when he puts himself in danger to ensure the unconscious driver of a crashed bus gets out safely while the other passengers make their escape.

Meanwhile, local politics is starting to heat up. Venal politician Choi Man-su (Choi Gwi-hwa) is up for re-election and running on a platform of making Mokpo great again. It comes as no surprise that Man-su is deep into the corrupt theme park project and outsourcing general thuggery to Se-chool’s arch-enemy which eventually includes taking out potential rivals like Hwang-bo whose approval ratings are soaring while voters are becoming tired of Man-su’s big money tactics and insincere messaging. Soon enough, Se-chool is persuaded to enter the race seeing as his “local hero” persona puts him in good stead to oppose Man-su’s establishment credentials. But, in order to get elected and convince So-hyun he’s really changed, he’ll have to finally face his traumatic gangster past while learning to be open and honest with his feelings.

Kang goes in hard for the business of politics, taking pot-shots not only at corrupt establishment figures in so tight with organised crime that they’re little more than jumped up gangsters, but also at ambitious party hoppers, and misguided mobsters who think they’re onto the big ticket by hooking up with “legitimate” power. Poor Se-chool, meanwhile, actually thought he was doing “proper business” in his persona as a besuited gangster of the new, corporatised school little thinking about the little guy as he unwittingly went about his ultra-capitalist agenda. Heading for broad comedy, Long Live the King misses an opportunity for serious satire but has undeniable heart as the misused hero learns to accept himself in being accepted by others, falling in love not only with a feisty activist lawyer but with community spirit and progressive politics as he vows to fight for a better future for the people of Mokpo while opposing the inherent corruption in the system embodied by men like Man-su who feel themselves entitled to exploit solely by virtue of their own superiority.


Long Live the King was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Romang (로망, Lee Chang-geun, 2019)

romang posterKorea, like many developed nations, is facing a demographic crisis as society continues to age at an unprecedented pace. While cultural norms demand deference to older people, the many problems they face in a society where welfare provisions are still minimal have often gone unaddressed in the assumption that family members have a duty to look after their relatives in their old age. This is, however, not always possible and there are occasions where considering opting for outside help becomes unavoidable.

This is the dilemma faced by elderly taxi driver Nam-bong (Lee Soon-jae) as he gradually comes to the conclusion that his wife, Mae-ja (Jung Young-sook), is suffering from dementia. The couple share their house with grown-up son Jin-soo (Jo Han-Chul), his wife Jeong-hee (Bae Hae-sun), and their young daughter Eun-ji who had mostly been cared for by Mae-ja while Jeong-hee was the family’s only breadwinner seeing as Jin-soo is an out of work academic (not particularly actively) looking for a new position. Mae-ja’s condition gradually declines to the point at which she begins to pose a danger to her remaining family members causing Jeong-hee to leave Jin-soo and take Eun-ji to her parents’ out of the way.

Gruff and insensitive, Nam-bong decides to send Mae-ja away to a hospice despite Jin-soo’s pleas but eventually reconsiders and brings Mae-ja home where he is committed to care for her himself. However, he too begins to experience the early signs of dementia and is at a loss as to how to proceed in the knowledge that it will become increasingly difficult for him to look after his wife or she him.

The onset of dementia, the film seems to imply, perhaps allows the troubled couple to begin to move past a central moment of trauma in their relationship which has left a lasting thread of resentment between them. Nam-bong, a chauvinistic, difficult husband is not well liked by his family members and most particularly by his son while Mae-ja had, maybe reluctantly, stood by him physically at least if not emotionally. His decision to send Mae-ja away is then a double betrayal in his abnegation of his duties as a husband and in his spurning of all Mae-ja has had to put up with over the last 40 years.

The distance between the couple has also had an effect on Jin-soo who always felt himself pushed out as an accidental victim of his parents’ emotional pain. It is clear that Nam-bong, a traditionally minded patriarch, has little respect for his son who, in his view, is a failure for not having secured a steady career which can support a wife and child, “allowing” his wife to work in his stead. For Nam-bong, being a man is all about “supporting” a family but not actually having to be around very much. For Jin-soo, a modern man, it’s very different. He wants to be there for his wife and daughter so that they have good memories of him hanging out and having fun rather than being that guy who turns up at dinnertime to shout at everyone and then leaves again.

Nevertheless, Nam-bong is eventually forced to accept his emotional duty to his family when he decides to care for Mae-ja. While their mutual condition begins to bring old, negative emotions never fully dealt with to the surface, it also allows them to rediscover the innocent love they had for each other as a young married couple. When Jin-soo eventually leaves the family home to return to his wife and child, the couple decide to isolate themselves, holing up in the living room and communicating via a series of poignant post-its which remind them to care for each other as the darkness intensifies.

Yet it’s not quite all sweetness and light as the elderly romantics rediscover a sense of warmth and connection they assumed long lost. Despite the support shown for Jin-soo’s modern parenting, there is a notably conservative spin placed on the story of Mae-ja and Nam-bong which may very well mark them out as simply being of their time but a late poignant scene in which the young Mae-ja declares her dream to be having a good husband while Nam-bong’s is to support a family sits uncomfortably in its unsubtle defence of traditional gender roles. To make matters worse, the final moments seem to suggest that there is no place for the elderly couple in contemporary society in allowing them (well, Nam-bong) to take control of their destinies only in the most final of ways. Maudlin and sentimental, Romang sparkles when embracing the unexpected cuteness of the late life love story but too often opts for easy melodrama over emotional nuance in its refusal to address its darker elements and eagerness to romanticise the business of ageing.


Romang (로망) was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)