The unlikable heroine of South Korean independent film “Jesus Hospital“ felt pretty repellent to me at first. Though the Christian people I have known or met were very nice people I still remember with fondness, I also know that there are the other Christians in South Korea who are the big insult to the benevolent teaching of Jesus. I have never come across such people fortunately, but I have heard a lot about their embarrassingly fanatic behaviors to the non-Christians like me, including openly saying in public that they will go to hell if they do not believe in Jesus.
Hyeon-soon(Hwang Jeong-min) will say like that if I tell her that I am an atheist. She will be also very hostile if other relatively conventional Christians question her belief. Rather than going to the church like others, she has the periodic meeting with her fellow believer where they pray or read the bible. I know some of Korean Christians say a prayer with rather hysterical chanting, but what they say during their prayer in the movie is odd and incomprehensible to understand to my ears.
She and her family have been distant from each other for years. She lives alone at her home while her grown-up daughter Soo-jin(Han Song-hee) lives separately from her. In case of her siblings, it is apparent during their family meeting that Hyeon-soon and her siblings are not on good terms. Only family member liked by Hyeon-soon is her aging mother, who knows that there is little time for her life but does not worry about that a lot because she thinks she lives enough. If that is God’s will, than so be it.
Two months later, what Hyeon-soon’ mother has expected eventually happens, and now she has been in coma for six months with a very little chance of recovery. Her children except Hyeon-soon decide that it is the time to let their mother go. They are tired, and the medical care bill has been quite burdensome to each of them. All they have to do is signing the papers and then removing the respirator from their comatose mother while saying goodbye to her.
However, Hyeon-soon does not let that happen. She believes God is speaking to her, and she thinks her mother will wake up someday just because God told her so. Her siblings are naturally angry about her when she blocks them. They have a good reason to be furious because Hyeon-soon did not bear any expense for caring their mother, but we cannot completely side with them. Hyeon-soon lives poorly while barely making the ends meet through her milk delivery, so it may be not right to dismiss her opinion just because she did not pay any of the hospital bills for her mother. But we also can say that Hyeon-soon’s siblings suffer enough financially or emotionally and letting their mother die is the best solution for all of them and their mother, who showed no attachment to her remaining life before being hospitalized.
While judging neither of their conflicting views which are based on their respective religious belief, the director Lee Sang-cheol and the director/co-screenplay writer Shin A-ga makes a dark, compelling family story about how the religion affects not only the views on the serious matter of life and death but also the relationships inside the family. Although the past of Hyeon-soon and others is not fully explained in the film except a few moments, it goes without saying that Hyeon-soon’s fanatic belief has been a major factor in making herself alienated from others. Her husband seemed to leave her a long time ago because of that, and her daughter, who begins to live her own life with her well-meaning but clueless husband, looks not so pleased when her mother calls.
But Hyeon-soon and Soo-jin are still a mother and a daughter, and the movie goes into a more complex family situation when Soo-jin agrees to help the other family members’ plan for stopping Hyeon-soon. She feels no qualm about that at first, but there comes the moment when she finds that something valuable is missing at her mother’s home, and she makes an important decision after knowing that why it was gone.
The original Korean title is “Mink Coat”, which was the present given to Hyeon-soon’s mother in the film which works as the crucial factor in the story. The directors said that they decided to choose it as the title because of the contradictory nature of fur coat, whose warm comfort is provided by the savageness beneath it. The similar thing can be said about family; it provides the comfort you need, but it also can be a suffocating cage filled with anger and resentment.
Through its realistic hand-held camera approach, the movie sticks close to the characters with the suffocating feeling intensified by the performances. Hwang Jeong-min, who appeared in a few movies including “Save the Green Planet!”(2003), gives a captivating lead performance as a firm fanatic believer with lots of grudges against her family, She looks as crazy as Kathy Bates in “Misery”(1990) at first, but we come to understand indirectly how she has clung to her religion while shunned by other family members, and we feel a little sorry for her when her belief gets almost crushed when she faces an agonizing dilemma. Her co-actors are also instrumental in making the drama work as Hyeon-soon’s antagonizing family members. We come to see their hypocrisy behind them, but we also regard them as the human beings with understandable flaws and hurt feelings inside them.
“Jesus Hospital” is a small but intense and uncomfortable drama with one of the best female performances in South Korean films of this year. Compared to its engaging narrative, the climax and following ending feel hurried and artificial because it is a little hard to believe that almost everything in the film happens for less than 24 hours, but, folks, those stiff believers are usually persuaded or awakened by not our common sense or logics but how the world(or the hand of God, shall we say) slaps them hard, aren’t they?
Sidenote: I was born on March 3rd, 1983 at Jesus Hospital in Jeonju, South Korea. It is sort of amusing to see my birth place used as the movie title, although the movie has nothing to do with that hospital.