SVAHA: THE SIXTH FINGER (사바하) (NETFLIX) (2019)
SYNOPSIS: A minister who researches religious cults turns to his Buddhist monk friend for help investigating a new group of mysterious origins.
You should know right from the start that ‘Svaha: The Sixth Finger’ isn’t for everyone, not least if you like your stories clear, straightforward and unambiguous. For its first two acts, writer-director Jang Jae-hyun keeps his cards very close to his chest, revealing crucial details bit by bit to join what starts out as three parallel plotlines. At the same time, you’ll find yourself questioning what has been established before – which to be sure is exactly Jang’s intention – wondering if indeed your preconceived notions of who is good and who is evil are founded.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say that ‘Svaha’ is at its core an occult thriller which examines how religions and believers are created and cultivated. That may not be immediately apparent from its first subplot, which opens the movie in a small rural village town in 1999 where a woman has given birth to twin girls, the younger one of whom we are told is evil incarnate. Fast-forward 14 years later, the girls are in the care of their grandparents, except that the older one Geun-hwa (Lee Jae-in) has her own room in the main house and the younger one is locked away in the shed behind the stables behind a door marked with a giant cross.
Another subplot has the body of an adolescent girl being found in a remote hillside, sparking an investigation led by Chief Hwang (Jung Jin-young) that reveals the existence of a group which has been committing similar murders in different towns across Korea and even overseas. From four, the group is down to just Na-han (Park Jung-min), but as dedicated as he is to his mission, we learn too that he is haunted by the ghosts of the girls whom he had murdered in the name of religion. In time, we learn that Na-han’s leader is a mysterious figure who is born with the gift of immortality, but whose Godly figure requires the destruction of its evil opposite.
The central arc around which the subplots revolve concern Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae), a Protestant minister who runs an agency that specialises in exposing charlatan religious groups. His latest subject is a small Buddhist cult group called the Deer Mount, which comes on assignment from a prominent monk Haean (Jin Seon-kyu) who is one of the three top figures of the largest Buddhist sect in Korea and wants to clamp down on deviant strands of the religion. It is no surprise that Pastor Park’s digging, together with his loyal assistant Yo-sub (David Lee), will lead him to cross paths with Na-han and Geun-hwa, culminating in a race against time to stop an impending murder.
To Jang’s credit, the mise en scène of his film is absolutely perfect. Much of the action takes place in the wintry countryside, that itself lends an immediate air of ominous intrigue. Then there is the depiction of religion itself, which depicts the power (and danger) of belief/ conviction, as well as the use of tropes, including scripture and religious symbols, in maintaining that aura of sacredness. For the most part, Jang refrains from criticising any particular religion, or even religion per se, but uses the story to shine a light on the very fundamentals of religion itself.
And we must say, the combination of a procedural and religious-themed thriller, mixed with some horror elements, makes for an absolutely riveting watch from start to finish. Like we said, Jang paces the film deftly, building up an intricate narrative of various moving parts slowly, surely and confidently. As with his previous ‘The Priests’, there are well-placed spooky moments here, so consider that as fair warning for the faint-hearted. Amidst the twisty plot and its weighty themes, there is perhaps less emphasis on the characters, but the excellent cast more than compensates for that.
Because of its subject, ‘Svaha: The Sixth Finger’ will not be an easy watch, nor a comfortable one, especially for those who hold on strongly to their religious beliefs. We’ll reiterate that the film itself has nothing against any particular religion or religion itself, but forces us to critically assess and be cognisant of what drives our beliefs, lest we fall victim to blind faith. For that reason too, it probably won’t resonate with everyone, but we must say we were thoroughly captivated and impressed by the movie. At the very least, it is a satisfying mystery thriller, and if that sounds good enough for you, we’d urge you to keep an open mind and let it speak to you.
Review by Gabriel Chong