Svaha: The Sixth Finger movie review — Korean horror offering is high on ideas but low on execution
Despite its campy title, Svaha: The Sixth Finger starts out to investigate our systems of belief and the power and sense of entitlement they engender. But the richness of its subtext and ideas fails to penetrate the thick layers of narrative that roil above it.
The Korean cinematic storytelling form excels at laying the foundation of seemingly disparate stories and developing them independently before gradually converging them at a focal point from where the edified narrative proceeds towards a grand climax. It draws on the dramatic potential implicit within these multiple threads and accentuates their impact by splicing them together to create a complex emotional and dramatic structure. This method has the additional effect of lending a sprawling, epic quality to the film, which is further heightened by a dense atmosphere.
Svaha: The Sixth Finger can boast about bringing together three different story strands — all interesting, if not original — and wrapping them up in an atmosphere of dread, secrets and manipulation in the name of defending good against evil. Unfortunately, this work of historical religious horror wastes its atmosphere and intricately contrived ideas on under-developed characters, a ramshackle structure and dull writing. Its ambition is ill-served by the inconsistent and flashy editing and background score.
Svaha starts off in 1999 with the birth of twin girls in a Korean village, one of whom turns out to be possessed by a demon. Fast forward to the present to find that the family has moved to another village. They have chosen to raise the demon in secret alongside the normal girl. They keep their secret locked away beside the stables and no one apart from them knows about her existence. Wherever they go, though, strange events and deaths occur, forcing them to lead a nomadic life.
We switch to the story of Park, a pastor who runs an independent organisation that exposes religious cults and groups. He is always looking to make money in the name of saving Buddhism from self-serving interests. He learns about Deer Hill, a group that he suspects to be a cult and exposing whom will bring him fame and some much needed cash. Once he begins investigating them, Park stumbles upon a religious conspiracy involving a series of killings that may or may not be connected. This is how Jeong Na-han comes into the picture, an assassin who appears to be motivated by faith and a religious leader into maintaining the balance of good and evil.
Director Jang Jae-hyun has his hands full with the multiple storylines that keep getting denser. By the time they begin to converge, there have already been instances where Jang’s failed to provide the requisite attention to the individual strands. The first story, for instance, gets forgotten for a long stretch once the focus shifts to Pastor Park. This tendency results in half-baked characters who become increasingly difficult to figure out and often keep track of. This malaise is further aggravated by side characters who appear either as comic relief or to explain what the more significant character is thinking. The writing plays catch up once the three stories have been established while the editing struggles to keep the narrative together in a coherent whole.
The script is by no means without its quota of twists and turns, which, to their credit, do take you by surprise. But the writer straddles all too much while explaining what’s going on. The strain begins to show owing to the constant shuffling between the past and the present and between the different story strands. Before long, the script starts slackening in places and the endless volley of twists and turns begins to feel like an apology for the expansive nature of the narrative.
Svaha stays afloat due to the intricate plotting of the religious conspiracy that lies at the heart of the film. The reasons behind Jeong’s string of murders and the life that has led him to this juncture make for compelling viewing. Although the emotional weight of the discovery of the bitter truth is lost on the viewer due to the mismanaged complexity of the narrative, the mystery remains interesting and the revelation mildly rewarding. Even at its relatively long runtime of 122 minutes, Svaha never ceases to be watchable. Only, its potential for creating something profounder doesn’t come close to being realised.
That, in essence, is its major failing. Despite its campy title, Svaha: The Sixth Finger starts out to investigate our systems of belief and the power and sense of entitlement they engender. But the richness of its subtext and ideas fails to penetrate the thick layers of narrative that roil above it.
Rating: ★★ and a 1/2
Svaha: The Sixth Finger is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:
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