Religiously-infused films often walk an incredibly precarious line; should the narrative either condone or condemn the ideology being portrayed, the risk of alienating – or worse, offending – factions of the audience is great. And yet seemingly any cinematic foray into the subject inescapably stokes controversy as the predicaments, decisions and actions taken through faith, whether situated within historical or contemporary contexts, generate enormous debate amongst the religious and non-religious alike.
With a title such as Jesus Hospital (밍크코트), audiences could understandably be forgiven for preconceiving that the film features overtly biased, pro-Christian debates. Yet Jesus Hospital does no such thing, instead focusing on a family tragedy while the emotionally fraught relatives struggle to make sense of their situations through their own interpretations of religious texts. The film is incredibly successful in portraying a balanced, mediative approach, and aside from a rather bland second act, is an interesting and thought provoking independent drama.
Despite her humble life, Hyeon-soon (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) is relatively happy. However she hides a secret from the rest of her devoutly Christian family, as Hyeon-soon’s beliefs are more akin to the Old Testament and she frequently worships in such a manner. When her mother becomes gravely ill, Hyeon-soon and the rest of her estranged family must reach an agreement – should they end the life support keeping their mother alive, or wait in the hope that she will one day awaken? As each member of the family wrestles with the ethical dilemma and their religious beliefs, the introduction of Hyeon-soon’s pregnant daughter Soo-jin (수진) shakes the familial ties to their very foundations and forces them to acknowledge factors they have long sought to keep hidden.
The title Jesus Hospital is a bizarre, religiously-infused differentiation from the original ‘Mink Coat’, and is also something of a disservice as the film is much more concerned with familial relationships and ethical dilemmas than in foregrounding Christian ideology. Religious beliefs are however wonderfully interrogated throughout the domestic strife in Hyeon-soon’s family, as each member applies rhetoric to suit to their own desires yet appear wholly ignorant of their selective manipulation. Yet co-directors Lee Sang-cheol (이상철) and Shin A-ga (신아가) are incredibly balanced in their portrayal of Christian beliefs, neither reinforcing nor detracting from the ideology and instead allow each protagonist to convey their religious position throughout the drama. As such the narrative is – as with each protagonist’s relationship with the bible – open to ambiguity and interpretation, forming a mature and insightful foundation within which events transpire and decisions are made. Such a highly symbolic nature again emphasises the importance of the original title, as Mink Coat alludes to the themes expressed within the film with acute poignancy.
Jesus Hospital begins promisingly, as Hyeon-soon’s poverty-stricken life is revealed through a series of rapid extreme close-ups that starkly convey her hardships, from her aging skin through to the dilapated locations within which she monotonously delivers milk. Her dreary existence is wonderfully constructed and conveyed, as the directors have drained all colour from the mise-en-scene and emphasise Hyeon-soon’s boisterous character through confrontations with the public. Most notably, however are the conflicts with her family which are simultaneously humorous yet uncomfortably tense as the members trade quips with each other within seemingly intrusive camerawork. When Hyeon-soon’s mother is placed on life-support several months later, each family member’s Christian values – and deviation thereof – are employed to argue whether to end the life of the kind old woman, or to preserve it. With such an interesting premise it’s therefore surprising that the rest of the second act is a rather muted and bland affair, as the co-directors and the actors themselves fail to capitalize on the urgency of the situation, or the deviousness of those involved. Thankfully Jesus Hospital regains momentum with the introduction of Hyeon-soon’s estranged daughter Soo-jin, whose turn as a outspoken mediator makes the final act incredibly compelling.
As central protagonist Hyeon-soon (현순), Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) is wonderfully convincing as a poverty-stricken woman who dearly loves her mother and who seeks solace from her existence in Old Testament-esque worship. While her boisterous character is skillfully conveyed, her religious fortitude is often expressed through wide-eyed glares and wringing of hands which somewhat detracts from the zealous fundamentalism which is so often hinted. Nonetheless, Hwang Jeong-min portrays a fascinating character and continually alludes to the humor, loneliness, and anger of a woman striving to make sense of her life.
Despite her supporting role status, Han Song-hee (한송희) is incredibly compelling and likable as pregnant daughter Soo-jin (수진). Her ambivalence and indifference to family matters is performed convincingly, as is her radical change of stance upon learning the role of the mink coat within the family. It is largely due to her presence that the film recaptures the momentum contained within earlier scenes, and the actress brings a palpable sense of urgency and morality to the proceedings which had been absent.
The rest of the supporting cast all perform competently. In the role of Hyeon-soon’s older sister, Kim Mi-hyang (김미향), and of brother and sister-in-law Kim Nam-jin (김남진) and Baek Jong-woo (백종우), all three perform well as a devious trio each with their own agenda. However the actors generally fail to fully convey the complexity of their roles and the haste in which they wish action to be taken. Despite this, they perform well and their interactions with Hwang Jeong-min are humorously-uncomfortable highlights.
Misleading title notwithstanding, Jesus Hospital is an insightful and compelling independent drama that examines morality with a family during a period of crises. Writer Shin A-ga has constructed a well-balanced and incredibly mature exploration of the selective application of faith, which she skillfully co-directs with Lee Sang-cheol in conveying the complex relationships and ethical dilemmas. While duo somewhat fail to capitalize on the intriguing premise during the second act, Jesus Hospital is an engaging film and a significant contribution to Korean independent cinema.