The Prayer (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little robot morality play

South Korean film “The Prayer”, which is actually the theatrical version of one episode of South Korean TV anthology drama series “SF8”, is a simple but thought-provoking SF morality play which examines one familiar but undeniably impossible moral dilemma via its robot heroine. Although it mostly stays within genre conventions, the movie is still engaging thanks to its good storytelling and solid acting, and it will make you reflect more on several social issues poignantly reflected by its story and characters.

During its first act, the movie, which is mainly set in one nursing home located in Seoul in 2046, gradually lets us get accustomed to its futuristic background and details. Thanks to considerable technological advance, all of the patients in the hospital and their human caregivers are constantly assisted by android nurses, but things are still hard for many of human caregivers nonetheless. Yes, those android nurses are as cool and unflappable as expected in addition to being always ready for doing their jobs, but they still do not provide much emotional support to human caregivers, most of whom have suffered a lot in many aspects while usually being stuck with those patients as their close family members.

In case of a young woman named Jeong-in (Lee Yoo-young), her circumstance has been pretty depressing to say the least. As her father wished before his death, she has tried to run his little printing company as long as possible, but the printing company is on the verge of being bankrupt at present, and she has also been quite exhausted for taking care of her comatose mother. While her mother has been comatose for no less than 10 years, there is virtually not any possible chance of her mother regaining her consciousness at all, and Jeong-in becomes quite more frustrated and conflicted as being more aware of how her life has been going down and down due to this increasingly daunting circumstance.

At least, Jeong-in gets some consolation from her mother’s android nurse Ho-joong, who incidentally looks identical to Jeong-in and is accordingly also played by the same actress. Whenever Jeong-in feels helpless and hopeless, Ho-joong is willing to comfort Jeong-in a bit even though her No.1 priority is taking care of Jeong-in’s mother, and Jeong-in appreciates that even though Ho-joong’s kindness is just one of her many programmed responses.

However, Jeong-in later finds herself being on the edge again. Quite devastated by one tragic incident associated with a patient staying next to her mother, she is not so sure about whether she can keep going as before, and Ho-joong instantly senses and analyzes on how fragile and unstable Jeong-in’s state of mind is. According to the final conclusion made by Ho-joong’s artificial intelligence, it is highly likely that Jeong-in will end up giving up her life, and Ho-joong correctly discerns that Jeong-in must be free from her mother for avoiding that grim possible outcome.

In the meantime, Ho-joon begins to learn a bit about religion and morality via Sister Sabina (Ye Soo-jung), an old nun who often drops by the nursing home as willing to provide some pep talk to those human caregivers in the nursing home. While eventually deciding that she must do something for both Jeong-in and her mother, Ho-joong also wants to be sure about whether she makes a right decision or not, and that is how she comes to call Sister Sabina at one night.

Their following conversation may not surprise you much as these two main characters pull and push each other on the matters of life and morality, but the movie gradually dials up the level of tension line by line, and director/writer Min Gyoo-dong, who previously made “Herstory” (2017), skillfully handles his main characters’ increasingly tense circumstance. While the technical aspects of the film are more or less than what you can expect from your average TV episode, Min and his crew members fill the screen with enough mood and details to intrigue and engage us, and we accordingly become more emotionally involved in the moral dilemma of the story.

Above all, the movie is anchored well by the commendable dual performance by Lee Yoo-young, a promising actress who has been more prominent since her notable supporting turn in “Fatal Intuition” (2015). While quite looking different from her recent comic turn in “Perhaps Love” (2021), Lee ably goes back and forth between her two very different roles throughout the movie, and that is the main reason why several key scenes between these two characters of hers work with substantial dramatic effect.

In case of a few other main cast members of the film, they effectively fill their respective spots around Lee. While Ye Soo-jung, who was simply unforgettable in “An Old Lady” (2019), brings some life and personality to her rather functional role, Yeom Hye-ran is believable in her similar dual performance, and Choi Byung-mo and Yoon Kyung-ho are also well-cast in their small supporting roles.

In conclusion, “The Prayer” is a fairly modest genre piece, but it did its job as much as expected with enough intrigue and intelligence during its short running time (79 minutes). To be frank with you, I and a friend of mine came to talk and discuss about its story and characters for a while after we watched it early in this morning, and that says a lot in my humble opinion.

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