Hyeon-soon leads a humble, yet satisfactory lifestyle

Jesus Hospital (밍크코트) – ★★★☆☆

Jesus Hospital (밍크코트)

Jesus Hospital (밍크코트)

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.

Hyeon-soon leads a humble, yet satisfactory lifestyle

Hyeon-soon leads a humble, yet satisfactory lifestyle

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.

The introduction of pregnant daughter Soo-jin increases the familial tension

The introduction of pregnant daughter Soo-jin increases the familial tension

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.

Hyeon-soon seeks advice from the heavens

Hyeon-soon seeks advice from the heavens

Verdict:

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.

★★★☆☆

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The girls await their mother atop the 'treeless mountain'

Treeless Mountain (나무없는 산) – ★★★★☆

Treeless Mountain (나무없는 산)

Treeless Mountain (나무없는 산)

The notion of family is incredibly important within all cultures, yet while ‘Western’ countries have dealt with the breakdown of the family unit for several generations it is only in the last decade that Korea has seen an enormous rise in the national divorce rate. Due to the highly competitive culture and emphasis on diligence and financial earnings, such divorces often result in the ignorance, or outright abandonment, of the children and their needs as parents strive in the workplace or seek pastures new.

Treeless Mountain (나무없는 산), the second feature written and directed by Kim So-yong (김소영), explores the lives of two such children with elegance, grace, and poignancy. The simplistic narrative allows the director to convey every emotional nuance from the young actresses, resulting in an outstandingly heartfelt drama of loss and the desire for kindness, the effects of which stay long after the closing credits.

At seven years old, Jin (Kim Hee-yeon (김희연) is developing well at school and is beginning to display keen intelligence. Yet when school is finished, she must rush home to take care of her younger sister Bin (Kim Seong-hee (김성희) until their mother (Lee Soo-ah (이수아) returns from work. Struggling financially, their mother decides to leave Jin and Bin with their aunt (Kim Mi-hyang (김미향) while she looks for their father, promising to return when their piggy bank is full. Distraught, Jin and Bin set out to earn enough money to fill their piggy bank, and await the return of their family unit.

Jin and Bin work hard to fill their piggy bank

Jin and Bin work hard to fill their piggy bank

Writer/director Kim So-yong does a masterful job in conveying the unkind world inhabited by youngsters Jin and Bin. Jin in particular receives the most focus and is the heart of the film, old enough to understand that changes are occurring within her life yet too young to comprehend why. Jin’s intelligence in school, as well as her lack of self-confidence, are wonderfully conveyed only to be later poignantly contrasted with her parental role as caretaker of her younger sister Bin. Her resentment of the role is amazingly restrained, while her heartache as Bin receives more attention and affection from their mother is heartbreakingly sincere. Such subtle emotional responses are expertly captured by Kim So-yong, with her highly effective and consistent use of close-ups and extreme close-ups making for a simultaneously riveting and a borderline claustrophobic experience, forcing the audience to engage and empathize with the young girls. While Jin almost instinctively takes on the role of responsibility, Bin is excellent in attempting to ignore the sense of abandonment and pretend everything is fine, as exemplified by her princess dress which she constantly wears. She is delightfully optimistic and treats her mother’s abandonment as a quest or game, the completion of which involves filling a piggy bank full of coins by any means necessary. Jin and Bin’s childhood logic in fulfilling the task set by their mother is comical, endearing and tragic, making their plight ever more compelling.

As well as depicting the story of the two young girls, Treeless Mountain is a scathing account of the contemporary absence of parental responsibility. Jin and Bin’s father never appears within the film, and while their mother is caring she also treats Jin unfairly, as well as failing to return to her children as promised. While the situation is never made clear, the mother’s quest of finding the father of her children is her ultimate goal and decides to stay with him – the man who abandoned his family – rather than return to their children. Similarly, the aunt who takes responsibility for Jin and Bin during this time is woefully inept, using money to drink alcohol rather than on food for the hungry youngsters. It is only the mother of a disabled child and Jin and Bin’s grandmother who are portrayed as understanding the nature of parenting, clearly stating that parental responsibility is a specialist comprehension that is shockingly absent in contemporary society.

The girls await their mother atop the 'treeless mountain'

The girls await their mother atop the ‘treeless mountain’

Kim Hee-yeon is absolutely enthralling as Jin, giving an astonishing performance for such a young actress. She completely shines in every scene and conveys a startling array of emotional depth throughout the film. Her intelligence, shyness, and her desire to play and live the life of a child are wonderfully performed, yet the young actress really excels during more dramatic events that reveal her animosity and resentment towards her situation, lashing out at younger sister Bin in moments of frustration and later subtly expressing guilt through kindness. Throughout Treeless Mountain, Kim Hee-yeon performs with utmost sincerity.

As younger sister Bin, Kim Seong-hee is also wonderfully endearing. Her childish optimism and logic are a joy to watch, as is her boldness which helps her and her reluctant older sister during times of hardship. Her innocence and naivety are excellent counterparts to Jin’s growing awareness and cynicism, and the co-dependency they share in their relationship is elegantly symbiotic.

Jin and Bin are continually uprooted and made to feel like a burden

Jin and Bin are continually uprooted and made to feel like a burden

Verdict:

Writer/director Kim So-yong has crafted a beautifully poetic tale of the hardships of childhood in Treeless Mountain, with incredibly endearing performances by the two young leads that are conveyed with a startling level of sincerity. The film is one of the few to tackle the concept of the breakdown of the family unit from the perspective of the children, lambasting parents who renege on their responsibilities yet emphasizing the resilience and adaptability of the youngsters. Treeless Mountain is an elegantly poignant film about the desire for kindness in a cynical world, and is an absolute delight.

 ★★★★☆

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