“I’m just wondering if they all live with nothing to live for and whether it has any meaning to live like that. And if I am no different.” a beleaguered daughter muses contemplating her own future while caring for her mother (Moon Sook) who has been bedridden in a coma for the last decade. A perhaps controversial advocation for euthanasia, Min Kyu-dong’s expansion of his entry into the SF8 series The Prayer (간호중, Ganhojung) offers a timely exploration of the nature of empathy, the limits of AI technology, the ageing society, and the destructive effects of inequality as mankind’s children find themselves wracked by the existential pain of human suffering.
Set in the near future in which high schools are bulldozed to build additional care centres, The Prayer revolves around the relationship between the melancholy Jung-in (Lee Yoo-young) worrying if prolonging her mother’s life in this way is really what she’d want, and the robotic care nurse she’s hired to look after her, Ho-joong (also Lee Yoo-young). As we discover, Jung-in has taken advantage of the offer to have herself listed alongside her mother as a target for care leaving Ho-joong with an ironic conflict torn between her duty to look after Jung-in’s mother and witnessing the toll caring for her is taking on Jung-in who frequently expresses depressive thoughts and potentially suicidal ideations.
In order to provide comfort to patients, the androids are designed with the same face as the primary guardian, meaning Jung-in is in someways in dialogue with herself while Ho-joong becomes increasingly confused in her imperfect, in some ways childish, application of human empathy. Fixated on Jung-in with a devotion which turns towards the romantic, she comes to the logical conclusion that in order to save her secondary patient the obvious choice is to sacrifice the first but has seemingly no understanding of the effect that may have on Jung-in who may be worn out and emotionally drained but would obviously feel responsible should anything happen to her mother at the hands of the robot nurse she hired because she has developed unintended feelings towards her.
The extent of Ho-joong’s “feelings” are indeed at the heart of the matter as evidenced by her strange conversations with a well-meaning nun, Sister Sabina (Ye Soo-Jung), who is originally dismissive unwilling to recognise that a manmade creation may also desire access to God. As incongruous as it sounds, Ho-joong’s awakening spirituality positions her as uniquely human and as trapped as one of her patients, tormented by the pain of being alive and finally confined to table on which she claims to be experiencing near torture at the hands of those seeking to understand her “malfunction”. Her German manufacturers locate the fault in her advanced language processing unit, as if the problem were that she understands too well when perhaps it’s more that her empathy is based in a different metric and prone to misunderstand the irrationality of human impulses towards guilt and love.
That’s also the problem with the unit next door owned by Mrs. Choi (Yum Hye-ran) whose husband (Yoon Kyung-ho) seems to be suffering from advanced dementia which often causes him to become violent or unpredictable. Unlike Jung-in, however, Mrs. Choi could only afford a basic model which offers little in the way of empathy nor will it care for her. Consequently, she appears to be overburdened with her husband’s care, doing laundry and tidying up after his frustrations cause him to trash his hospital room. The machine offers her only censure while the duty of care ironically prevents her from attending to her own health. Seeking help she turns to the manufacturer who bluntly tells her she doesn’t understand how to operate the machine and advises she ask her kids to teach her, only it appears that Mrs. Choi may have had a child in the past from whom she has become estranged and is otherwise all alone. Older than Jung-in, she despairs for the quality of her life and has no one to protect or care for her, pushing her towards a dark decision.
Both women wonder if life is worth living if it means living like this, but have very different options open to them given their economic disparity. Having learned to feel pain, Ho-joong begs to be freed of it, positions now reversed as Sister Sabina becomes her caregiver. She accuses the nun of hypocrisy, that she allows her suffer by refusing to end her pain in order to preserve her own conscience in insisting to do so would be a “sin”. “What do I go through this pain for!” Ho-joong cries as if throwing herself into a fiery pit of existential torment while a cold authority insists she must continue to suffer. Min makes a powerful if perhaps controversial argument for the right to end one’s own suffering at a time of one’s own choosing if also leaning uncomfortably into the burdens of care as Mrs Choi and Jung-in too struggle with themselves while trying to do what’s best for those they love, but ultimately discovers a kind of serenity as his robot nurse encounters the spiritual and with it a release form the pain of living.
The Prayer streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 22nd October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.