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)

Ode to the Goose (군산: 거위를 노래하다, Zhang Lü, 2018)

15eeddc21a2c46f3992b2b459ee3ceb3Past and present flow as one in Zhang Lü’s elliptical Ode to the Goose (군산: 거위를 노래하다, Gunsan: Geowileul Nolaehada). Making a perhaps controversial point, Zhang sets the majority of his tale in the harbour town of Gunsan which echoes ‘30s Korea when the nation was still brutally oppressed by the Japanese to which the many graphic photographs and monuments on display stand testament. Yet Zhang seems to ask, returning to his favourite theme, if they’re all Koreans no matter where they were born, why are some more oppressed than others?

The film opens with the hero, struggling poet Yoon-young (Park Hae-il), standing in front of a street map, lost in his mother’s home town. He is then joined by a slightly older woman, Song-hyun (Moon So-ri), whom he has apparently asked to accompany him to Gunsan on a whim without really explaining why. Still hung over from the night before, they stop off at an odd little noodle joint run by an elegant older woman (Moon Sook) who seems oddly fascinated by their strange chemistry. Yoon-young, innocently enough, makes conversation by asking about her home town only for her to shut him down. “What home town?” she fires back, “home is where you settle”.

Later we discover she speaks fluent Japanese, cheerfully conversing with the autistic daughter of the inn owner (Park So-dam) where the couple eventually stay after being judged “lucky” enough to be allowed in. The daughter of Japanese-Korean parents apparently “returned” from Fukuoka, the girl rarely speaks to strangers and only ever in Japanese, though she seems to take a liking to Yoon-young and is keen to try and connect with him, making sure he is always well taken care of while Song-hyun has turned her attentions to the girl’s father, melancholy widower Mr. Lee (Jung Jin-young) who likes to take photographs but only ever of landscapes and not of people.

The Lees are Korean too, even if one of them only speaks Japanese and they run a Japanese-style inn in the middle of a moribund museum to colonial horror (the local shrine even has a comfort woman statue standing in the back). Meanwhile, a passerby mistakes Song-hyun for a Chinese-Korean woman she once knew and insists on speaking to her in Yanbian dialect which Song-hyun, as we later learn, is unable to understand even if there is a Chinese-Korean connection in her family history. Song-hyun muses that had her grandfather, like his brother, chosen to stay in Manchuria after the war then she’d be Chinese-Korean too, as would famed poet of the colonial era Yun Dong-ju if he hadn’t died a political prisoner in a Japanese jail in Fukuoka which is, coincidentally, where the Lees were “from”. It is all “coincidental”.

So why does Yoon-young’s “right wing nut job” (as Song-hyun calls him) father hate Chinese-Koreans so much, blaming them for all the faults of the modern nation and decrying those who left for Shanghai with the Independence Movement as traitorous communist collaborators? A whimsical prequel (or a kind of re-imagining) of the Gunsan incident sees Yoon-young walking through his own “hometown” while a man who probably is not actually Chinese-Korean himself and may just be out to claim a buck or two, holds a rally for the rights of “foreign” Koreans in order to avoid exploitative employment practices and affirm that Koreans from other parts are the same as Koreans from Korea. Are “native” Koreans perhaps oppressing “non-native” ones in the same way that they were oppressed by the Japanese? In practical terms no, obviously not – there are no essential horrors here, but there is deeply ingrained prejudice and wilful exploitation. Interestingly enough, despite his conservatism, Yoon-young’s dad had him attend Chinese language classes, if ones that were run by the Taiwanese who are obviously not “communist” but were also formerly a Japanese colony.

Meanwhile, Yoon-young’s life takes him on a curious symmetry in which everything reminds him of something else. He repeatedly asks the women he meets if they’ve met before, experiences eerily similar moments in Gunsan and at home, and continues to look for connections between himself and a world of universal poetry stretching from the classical Chinese of the film’s title to the melancholy odes of Yun Dong-ju, writing in his “native” language in defiance of colonial authority. Dualities predominate – beauty/horror, attraction/indifference, silence/language, here/there, then/now, but through it all there is commonality. Yoon-young’s failure to communicate leaves him feeling defeated and depressed, trapped in a self-imposed exile while the gregarious Song-hyun gleefully moves forward little caring of the costs. Whimsical and “ambiguous”, Zhang’s playful poetry is difficult to parse but nevertheless carries an essential warmth in its reassuring familiarities and openhearted commitment to the universality of human connections.


Ode to the Goose was screened as the latest teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. Tickets are already on sale for the next and final teaser screening, Kokdu, which will take place at Regent Street Cinema on 16th September.

Original trailer (no subtitles)