Svaha: The Sixth Finger
Korea (2019) Dir. Jang Jae-Hyun
Extreme religious doctrine can be scary for of us those on the outside of it, but as religion is not a singular concept, conflicting opinions as to whose God is the one true deity and which teachings are the right ones can also be dangerous among the various pious divisions.
In 1999, in the remote rural village of Yeongwol, a young girl, Geum-hwa (Lee Jae-In) is born but ten minutes before her, a deformed twin which had feasted on its sister’s leg in the womb popped out first and subsequently banished from view as the family feared it would unleash evil on the world. Jump forward to 2014, and the bodies of a number of young girls in Yeongwol are found, all killed in the same manner.
Meanwhile in Seoul, catholic priest Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae) and his assistant Yo-Sub (David Lee) investigate newly formed religious groups to expose them as money making frauds or pernicious cults. The group currently targeted is the Deer Mount cult, which is also under suspicion relating to the Yeongwol murders, causing the two investigations to overlap. But for Park, he discovers something far more dangerous and sinister that the police won’t be able to handle.
One can be forgiven for thinking director Jang Jae-Hyun is either a curious soul when it comes to religion or he has a beef with it – his debut feature, The Priests was about exorcism but his titular clergymen were quite uncouth for men of the cloth. Svaha: The Sixth Finger again has a less than exemplary protagonist – heavy smoker, careless with money, open to subterfuge – to lead the fight against evil in the name of God.
The difference here is that Pastor Park’s biggest enemy is not an evil presence per se but the interpretations of the sacraments and scriptures as relates to Buddhist folklore. This usually peaceful faith is known for promoting an ascetic existence, taking materialism as its prime opponent, but this doesn’t mean Buddhists aren’t without their fantastic fables which prophesies doom.
Just like his debut, Jang presents us with another heavily researched story that avoids besmirching religious belief, since South Korea is one of the few countries where all faiths contently co-exist with each other, but does go some way in showing the negative side to the power of its influence. He is not even suggesting these people are foolish for doing so, but does remind us that sometimes, asking pertinent questions is healthy.
Had the film not opened with the prologue detailing the birth of the cursed twins, one might have viewed this as a satirical comedy about the folly of false worship and falling for any well-prepared rot to make people hand their money over to some cunning charlatan. With this opening, we are instead teased in thinking Svaha is the thematic cousin of The Wailing, following it with a shamanistic ritual in progress.
Yet this is the only time this appears in the film although there are many other motifs that invite comparison to The Wailing, the rural setting for one, as well as the subplot about spiritual possession. But first, Park has to expose the Deer Mount cult as a sham which isn’t easy as they have done their homework and appear legit, so Park enlists the help of Buddhist monk Haean (Jin Seon-Kyu) as the Deer Mount are using Buddhist iconography in their meetings.
Meanwhile, the police have a lead on the Deer Mount’s enforcer Na Han (Park Jung-Min) as their prime suspect in the Yeongwol murders and a spate of suicides by members of the cult. Along with the mysterious Kim Dong-soo (Yoo Ji-Tae), Na Han is actually on a mission to prevent a demon in human form awakening for fear of it killing their master, an immortal monk of light, in their mind justifying the killings.
Sounds convoluted right? That’s because it is. Clocking in at just over two-hours, there are one or two subplots too many in this film preventing it from being a more coherent outing than it is. There is no denying the way it comes together is impressive given how many threads are involved, so credit to Jang for pulling it off, but the reality is things gets a little too complex for their own good, leaving some peripheral characters there just to fill a spot and not have a chance to justify their relevance.
Where the script earns its kudos is in the decryption by Park and Yo-Sub of the Buddhist texts when compared to the Christian equivalent in order to work out the motives and movements of the Deer Mount. There is some intricate deconstruction of the messages in Bible verses to align them with Buddhist doctrine which remarkably becomes a sort of mathematical equation in which a viable answer is reached.
It is quite ingenious and educational not just for Park but for the viewer too in explaining both sides of the teachings, especially Buddhism which is rarely explored in cinema outside of stereotyping. I can only assume that what Jang shares with us is as authentic as possible within the remit of a fictional work, and even as an atheist, I found it quite fascinating though not convinced to sign up for it.
For anyone looking for some creepy horror, Jang obliges without allowing the spiritual basis behind it lessen its unsettling appeal, whilst the dark Korean thriller atmosphere remains prevalent throughout the second half to appease those fans. The cast are all great in their roles, with a nod to 15 year-old Lee Jae-In for her remarkable efforts as Geum-hwa and her freaky twin.
As a director, Jang has that side down in creating tension and drama, but he still needs to rein in the surfeit of plot threads that overcrowd his scripts, otherwise Svaha: The Sixth Finger is a strong improvement on his clunky debut. Available currently on Netflix if you fancy giving it a watch yourself.