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‘Svaha: The Sixth Finger’ Is an Acceptable but Wanting Entrant in the Formidable Genre of Korean Thriller

10 March 2020

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‘Svaha: The Sixth Finger’ Is an Acceptable but Wanting Entrant in the Formidable Genre of Korean Thriller

(Image credit: CJ E&M)

A minister who researches religious cults turns to his Buddhist monk friend for help investigating a new group with mysterious origins.

Director: Jang Jae-hyun

Cast: Lee Jae-in, Lee Jung-jae, Park Jung-min

Year: 2019

Country: South Korea

Language: Korean

Runtime: 122 minutes


Jang Jae-hyun’s Svaha: The Sixth Finger 사바하 is a mystery thriller that explores the treacherous world of fundamentalism and cultish ideologies. Following Jang’s debut movie The Priests (2015), Svaha has a similar occult thread but left much to be desired. The film follows three parallel storylines that ultimately come together for a revelation that was, when all is said and done, disappointing, given the promising development of certain plots and characters.

(Image credit: CJ E&M)

We are first introduced to the birth of Geum Hwa (Lee Jae-in)  and her demonic twin sister in 1999, who are dogged by strange and disturbing events. Pastor Park Ung Jae (Lee Jung-jae) then enters the picture, whose job is to expose suspicious religious sects, one of which is Deer Hill. In the present day, he discovers a series of child murders which eventually unfolds to a deeper web of religious conspiracy involving the Deer Hill group and fanatic adherent, Jeong Na Han (Park Jung-min). 

The dark horror of Geum Hwa’s tale is particularly fascinating, and has great potential to be more compelling than it turned out to be. The bond she shares with her twin sister is profoundly unfathomable, and is poetic in its symbolism. Na Han’s emotional rollercoaster as his world is turned upside down is also memorable. Svaha does at times communicate an emotional intensity that keeps you wanting for more.

(Image credit: CJ E&M)

Jang’s meticulous imagery is also engaging. The emotional upheaval characters go through culminate with poetic intensity, such as that of Na Han’s, who gets to grips with his misplaced faith in a literally and symbolically heated manner. Another distinctly curious symbol is that of the elephant, who eventually gets shot by the Deer Hill leader, around the same time the narratives start coming together. I personally interpreted this literal elephant to represent a metaphorical elephant in the room, in the form of  the religious conspiracies that run amok. 

Jang takes advantage of the subtle dread that is triggered by Kang Hye-yeong’s sound design, who has worked on other similarly sinister films such as Parasite (2019) and Train to Busan (2016). The sound, as well as the colouring of the film, complements the eeriness that Jang wants to communicate with his script, which makes the lacklustre cinematography even more disappointing. This is almost an encapsulation of the film’s collapse – there lies a great potential in the work that is unable to be realised. 

The triad of storylines in Svaha is ambitious in its intricacy, and is successful in intriguing the audience. But because of the density of each narrative, Jang falls short in satisfactorily fleshing out and developing the characters. It is precisely in the complexity of interweaving all three narratives that regrettably dilutes the promise each plot thread had. The first two acts were strong, leading up to an anticlimactic conclusion. 

(Image credit: CJ E&M)

Jang’s commentary on the perils of religious zealotry and the politics it sustains are compelling concepts that hooked me from the get go. That he uses three plotlines simultaneously unfolding to tell his story could have been the winning centrepiece of the film. But the density of the multiple narratives unfortunately becomes the shortcoming. At any rate, Svaha matches up to the strong ideas of Korean thriller cinema, despite the execution. 

The thriller is now available for streaming on Netflix.

In the meantime, check out its trailer below:

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