Romans 8:37 (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Inside a Christian community

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South Korean film “Romans 8:37” is something we do not encounter everyday: a thought-provoking Christian film which does not give us any easy answer in its gloomy tale of faith and disillusionment. As an agnostic atheist who grew up in a Buddhist family, I naturally observed its story and characters with a certain degree of skepticism and criticism, but some of you may have different opinions on them, and that is why the movie is worthwhile to watch in any case.

The movie starts with the burial of a dead guy who was a brother-in-law to its hero Gi-seop (Lee Hyun-ho), a young Christian man who has struggled to advance in his religious career. Compared to his father-in-law or his other brother-in-law Yo-seop (Seo Dong-gab), Gi-seop is far less prominent as merely being a missionary, and he has lived in a shabby home along with his hard-working wife and their cute little daughter. As shown from one brief scene, his wife sometimes feels exasperated as clashing with his idealistic viewpoint, but she understands him well as a fellow Christian who grew up with him, and we can sense how their religion plays a large part in their daily life.

Meanwhile, there has been a power struggle between the former pastor of his church and Yo-seop, who was recently appointed as the new pastor of the church but has not gotten along with well with his predecessor. Besides using his considerable social/political influence, Yo-seop’s predecessor also attempts some dirty tactics to tarnish Yo-seop’s reputation, and we get a series of darkly amusing scenes which show us how nasty people can be in the name of faith and self-interest.

As Yo-seop’s position is being threatened, Gi-seop comes to decide that he must help his brother-in-law as much as he can, and this actually looks like a smart decision for him. After all, Yo-seop has been regarded as a rising new star in his Christian community, and everyone knows well that Yo-seop’s predecessor is your average corrupt pastor. If Gi-seop and his colleagues can try harder and endure longer, they and Yo-seop may eventually win in this unpleasant ongoing struggle, and that may help Gi-seop’s career in the future.

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While fending off those dirty tactics from Yo-seop’s predecessor, Gi-seop and his colleagues try to secure more deacons on their side, and they also attempt to make a sort of deal with Yo-seop’s predecessor. When Yo-seop is later thrown into an internal investigation just because of ‘heretical’ words used during one of his sermons, the situation is utterly serious for Yo-seop and everyone around him; in the worst situation, it will lead to the end of Yo-seop’s career, and that will invariably affect the life and career of people working for him.

And then there comes an unexpected possibility of scandal. When Gi-seop and his colleagues come to learn that there will be a TV news report on a sexual violation committed by Yo-seop, they are understandably skeptical at first, but then Gi-seop listens to a tape recording given to him by a TV news producer. It seems quite possible that the man he has respected for years really did horrible things to a number of young women as suspected, and Gi-seop finds himself shaken by shock and confusion. As a matter of fact, he knows the alleged victims well, and that certainly makes him feel quite bad.

The rest of the story focuses on how this potential scandal is handled by the church, and you will not be surprised at all if you are familiar with those shocking recent news reports on how sex crimes were covered up in religious communities. As he becomes more determined to expose Yo-seop’s felony in public, Gi-seop soon comes across the opposition from his elders, and there are not many people on his side. When a bunch of church elders gather together during one certain scene, their group presence is palpably felt on the screen, and we accordingly come to discern how their system will inexorably work for themselves.

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While surely critical of its religious subject, the movie still respects the faith of Gi-seop and other few good characters in the story. In case of one scruffy pastor who gives sermons to his congregation at his small residence, he is a jaded realist compared to Gi-seop, but he is also a compassionate guy, and I actually enjoyed his down-to-earth sermons to his congregation. In case of Gi-seop’s venerable father-in-law, he turns out to have his own fault in his life, but he has sincerely tried his best for repentance, and that aspect of his is contrasted with the hypocrisy of Yo-seop, who admits his sin but then impertinently justifies his rehabilitation.

Director/writer Shin Yeon-shick, who previously made “Fair Love” (2009), “The Russian Novel” (2012), “Rough Play” (2013), “The Avian Kind” (2014), and “Like a French Film” (2015), draws good realistic performances from his cast. While Lee Hyun-ho is effective as the moral center of the movie, Seo Dong-gab has a couple of intense scenes which reveal his character’s more despicable side, and the supporting performers surrounding them are also solid in their respective roles.

Although “Romans 8:37” is sometimes limited by its hero’s narrow viewpoint (I wish it put more focus on the victim characters, for example), it gives us a vivid, realistic look into his small world at least, and I observed that with curiosity while admiring its realistic storytelling approach. I believe its target audiences will appreciate its details more than me, but this is still an interesting work accessible to any audience, and I think you should give it a chance.

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