New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 간호중

The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 6-22 with both virtual and in-person screenings. Go to nyaff.org for more details.

We’re just a little over halfway into the festival as I write this, and as it currently stands I think we have the clear cut highlight; it’s going to be hard for anything to top the harrowing power of this thoughtful, chilling treatise on life, death, and humanity itself.

Directed by Min Kyu-dong as part of SF-8, a series of feature length science fiction based TV episodes, and based on a short story by Kim Hey-jin,

The film opens, ominously enough, with what looks like handheld footage of a nun reciting the story of Cain and Abel. The mood is dark, and it seems like we’re headed in a horror movie direction. Which we are… sort of.

But while the significance of that intro will only be revealed in the fullness of time, we are quickly escorted into the world of the future, a hyper-digital society that, abundance of holograms aside, never feels much more than two steps removed from the present day.

In this future, health care is mostly the provenance of commercial androids, and the quality of care very much depends on what you’re able to spend on your model. A long term care ward houses two very different patients: the early onset dementia addled husband of Ms. Choi; and the mother of Yeon Jung-in, who has been in a coma for ten years and shows no signs of ever recovering.

Both Choi and Yeon feel trapped by their circumstances, but only one of them has anything like a friend: while Choi could only afford a basic service model, Yeon’s nurse-droid (nicknamed Ha-Jeong) is fully equipped for both physical and psychological maintenance, and programmed to look after her as well as her mother… which proves to be a more complicated prospect than anyone might have imagined.

To say much more than that would be revealing too much about a story that is elegant in its simplicity but dense and layered in its presentations and the thorny questions that it raises. The one primary character who has yet to be mentioned is one Sister Sabina, a nun working at the hospital whose unwitting connection to Ha-Jeong is the fulcrum on which the movies big ideas pivot.

The non-intrusive special effects do a good job of immersing us into this world that’s not so far removed from the one we currently live in, but in the end its the performances that make it work, with Lee Loo-Young at the forefront of a very, very talented cast.

How talented are we talking here?

Talented enough that until I went and checked the cast credits, I had absolutely no idea that Lee-Joo Young and Yum Hye-Ran played both the patients struggling relatives and their android counterparts.

In Yeon, Young creates a heart rending portrait of filial despair, lonely beyond words, alienated from the world itself and tortured by her guilt that she sees her mother as both a burden and one of the only people she actually has left in her life. And enough can’t be said about just how remarkable the difference is when she’s playing Ha-Jeong; her physicality, her affect, her precision… the makeup effects certainly help but Loo-Young is so good at manifesting a sense of the uncanny that even now that I know the reality, it still seems absurd that it’s the same actress.

She generates the kind of intense chemistry screen couples dream of, and she does it all by herself.

Hye-Ran is just as good, and generates just as much chemistry with herself, but to very different, far darker ends. Where the Yeon/Ha-Jeong dynamic is tender, gentle, and complex, Choi’s interactions with her droid are merciless; Choi’s bitterness, exhaustion and desperation all bounce off of the utterly impassive, singleminded machine. While embodying the same exacting mechanical physicality as Young, Hye-Ran is completely devoid of any humanity, artificial or otherwise, and her scenes with are among the most unsettling in the entire film.

The more I think about The Prayer, the more it impresses me. It’s a story of ideas and deep, deep feeling that never tales the easy way out of the questions it asks about human nature, religion, and technology. I can only hope it finds its way to a larger audience someday.


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