[HanCinema's Film Review] "Jesus Hospital": A Family in Crisis
Films with blinding religious themes don't always capture my interest, especially when Christianity is being portrayed. Luckily though, Lee Sang-cheol and Shin A-ga's "Jesus Hospital" is in no way intrusive or preachy. It is a tale of family, more specifically; it's a generational story that makes uses of religion as an intangible thread between family members as one family struggles to re-stitch the divide between them. It's highly emotive, thematically driven, and memorable.
"Jesus Hospital" had its world premier at the 16th Busan International Film Festival and its two leading ladies (Hwang Jung-min-I and Han Song-hee) claimed the festival's "DGK Award" for their efforts. It was also a crowd pleaser, walking away with the "Citizen Reviewers' Awards", which is shared with Park Hong-min's "A Fish" and "Romance Joe" by Lee Kwang-kuk. A couple months latter, the film was honoured at the 37th Seoul Independent Film Festival and was awarded the competitions Grand Prize.
The film presents a family in crisis. Hyun-soon's (Hwang Jung-min-I) grandmother has been hospitalized and is now unable to breath on her own. Her siblings (Lee Jong-yoon as Joon-ho and Kim Mi-hyang as Myung-Soon) have been supportive of keeping her alive as long as possible, but they feel the time has come to let her pass away peacefully. Hyun-soon is outraged as this proposal and fights to prevent them from switching off her life-support, stubborn in the knowledge that God has sent her the message that it is not yet her time.
"Jesus Hospital" dramatizes the conflict between the family by creating a rift between Hyun-soon's seemingly illogical and highly emotional behaviour and the more pragmatic considerations of her siblings. Love is not the issue as much as it is hope, or rather understanding. Before Hyun-soon's mother was hospitalized, Hyun begged her not reveal a secret they share, as well as openly stating to the whole family that she wishes to die. It is this secret, riddled in religiosity, that acts as the justifying force for Hyun-soon's actions and hopes, while her grandmother's plea for death is taken up by the rest of the family. This secret is, however, not the only thing that is shared between Hyun-soon and her grandmother, a symbolic mink coat (which is fact the literal translation from the Korean title of the film) is also passed down to Hyun. The coat is more tangible passing between them than their secret, but it is not embossed with the same value as the supernatural connection or 'gift' they both seem to possess.
The notion of 'gifts' or knowledge passed from one generation to the next is what really drives the story. The directors have presented the idea that a family's bond is deepen by, if not created and sustained upon, a spiritual force that transcends the textures and objects they share in the real world. It is this knowledge, or understanding, acquired through the gift that gets passed in the form of a revelation, spiritual in its make-up and delivered with a punch through the film's captivating climax.
The film ends on a contemplative and suggestive note that minimises the at times drab journey we had to take to get there. Although the film manages to paint it's themes and motifs into the narrative with a degree of success, it did seem to struggle with a few poor expositionalchoices. Questions such as "What happened to Hyun's marriage?" and the film's final moments are handle deftly and thoughtfully, however not all scenes contain that same delicate touch. Overall though, "Jesus Hospital" is a though-provoking film that subtlety presents a range of culturally specific themes and knowledge about the world that invites strong afterthought and reflection. I think that the film ended on such a good note that some might forget about some how the film staggered and distracted at times to get there. With the 'recency effect' aside, Lee Sang-cheol and Shin A-ga largely impress with this touching tale of family bonds and how a crisis can bring positive change as well as enlightenment to its members.
-C.J. Wheeler (Chriscjw@gmail.com)
Q&A took place after a screening of "Jesus Hospital" at the Dong-Sang Art Hall in Daegu, South Korea (January 21, 2012). Appearing as speakers are movie director Shin A-ga and actress Kim Mi-hyang. AsianWiki editor Ki Mun was there and transcribed/translated the session.
Kim Mi-hyang (actress)' - Hello, I have worked as a stage actress in Deagu for a long time and run the theater troupe "Wongaksa".
Moderator - You are an adult, but why is your name A-Ga ("A-Ga" means baby in Korean)?
Audience Question - There's carols when the title of the movie appears on the screen. Any reasons why? Question for Kim Mi-hyang. You played a devout Christian in the movie "Secret Sunshine" and now in this movie too. I'm curious if you are really a Christian?
Shin A-ga (director) - Carols came out during a couple of the scenes in the movie. In the beginning, I didn't intend to use use carols. After editing the film, we worked on music for the film. The movie takes place around the Christmas season, so we put in carol songs when Soo-Jin delivers milk and show some Christmas decoration at Soo-Jin's hair salon. We added the carol song with a slow beat to evoke a melancholy mood. It turned out to fit the movie well.
Kim Mi-hyang (actress)' - Back when I acted in the movie "Secret Sunshine", I attended Catholic Church. Nowadays, I don't go to church. I get offered Christian characters a lot after playing in "Secret Sunshine".
Audience Question - I have two questions for the director. How did you come up with casting actress Hwang Jung-min-I in the lead role? Also, why did you select to have a different English title "Jesus Hospital" from the movie's Korean title "Mink Coat"?
Shin A-ga (director) - Hwang Jung-min-I acted in the movie "Save the Green Planet!". I was very impressed by her performance in that movie. Since that movie, she has only appeared as minor characters in movies. I felt kind of sorry for her because she is a good actress. After writing the screenplay for this movie, I wondered about who we should cast. During this time, in 2010, I watched Hwang Jung-min-I in a short film titled "Kkochnimi". In that short film, I saw Hwang Jung-min-I having something that the character Hyun-Soon in my film has. Thinking of Hwang Jung-min-I as Hyun-Soon, I could see the movie unfold in my mind. I decided to cast Hwang Jung-min-I then. Afterwards, I talked to Hwang Jung-min-I and she accepted the role in the movie. In our original screenplay, Hyun-Soon was written as someone in her mid 50's, but after casting Hwang Jung-min-I we changed the charcter to be in her mid 40's. The original title of the movie was "산소호홉기" ("Oxygen Respirator"). Nobody liked that title so I needed to come up with something else. Then I came up with "Mink Coat". Mink coats appear as props in the movie. The mink coats in the movie are used as emotional bridge that connets three generations of a family: grandmother, mother and daughter. The mink coat itself is warm, glamorous and expensive, but on the flip side, the mink coat is cruel - made by peeling off the animal's skin. That is reflective of the family members in the movie. They pretend otherwise, but, inside, they hurt their family members. The mink coat represents this kind of emotion and why we selected it as the title of the film. About the English title "Jesus Hospital". In general, the movie tells the story of a family who believe in Christianity. The movie contains themes on religion. The Korean title "Mink Coat" doesn't reflect this aspect. I agonized a bit over picking an English title. There is really a Jesus Hospital in Daegu and Jeonju. In the screenplay, I set the movie at one of these hospitals, but we couldn't shoot the film there. "Jesus Hospital" is also a compound word for "Jesus" and "Hospital". I thought that would reflect well on the religious aspects of the film and the backdrop of the film.
Audience Question - Is this movie Christian or anti-Christian? Are you a Christian?
Shin A-ga (director) - While I wrote the screenplay I heard similar questions a lot about whether the film is pro Christian or anti-Christian. My mother's side is Christian and my father's side is mostly Buddhist. Because of this religious difference I experienced conflict between them. That's partially why I ended up making this move. "Mink Coat" is not a pro-Christian or anti-Christian film. What the movie talks about is religion, God, and religion's impact on how people live. Also, how some people who have religion fall into certain dilemmas. I wanted to express all of this through main character Hyun-Soon. Personally, I hold Christian views, but co-director Lee Sang-cheol is not religious, but does have an interest in God. While we made this movie we kept talking.
Audience Question - I don't like religious movies in general, but I felt this movie is actually about the family. I am curious whether you plan to make more movies on religious topics? Question for Kim Mi-hyang, can you tell us about your experience working as a stage actress and running a theater troupe?
Kim Mi-hyang (actress)' - Theater troupe "Wongaksa" was founded in 1977 by Lee Pil-Dong, the older brother of movie director Lee Chang-dong. "Wongaksa" is the oldest theater troupe in Daegu. When Lee Chang-dong was appointed to lead the Ministry of Culture ＆ Tourism in 2003, Lee Pil-Dong turned the theater troupe over to me, because Lee Pil-Dong didn't want any perceived conflicts of interests. Personally, I want to show high quality work, even to an audience of one person. The name of the theater troupe "Wongaksa" comes from the name of Korea's first modern theater.
Shin A-ga (director) - To be honest, I didn't want to make this movie, because the story is inspired from my own personal experience. I didn't want people to know about that. Personally, I like warm and bright movies like "Billy Elliot" and I tried to make a movie like that, but I couldn't get any investments. I didn't really try hard to get this movie made, but somehow I got support from the Korean Film Council and ended up making "Mink Coat". Nowadays, I think of this movie as a stepping stone for making more movies in the future. I would like to make more bright and warm films.
Audience Question - I think this movie is about enlightenment or atonement. Two directors worked together to make this movie. Are there advantages working together to make a movie? In the movie, the other actors and actresses speak with a Seoul dialect, except actress Kim Mi-hyang. She uses both Daegu and Seoul dialects?
Shin A-ga (director) - Me and Lee Sang-cheol talked about it and decided to work like the Wachowskis or the Coen brothers. Positives for making a movie together are those numerous times when you have to choose. It can be difficult to make the decision alone, but we worked out a way where if we both say yes then we make the choice right away. When we had differences in opinions we didn't do it. On the filming set, I talked with the actors and actresses, while Lee Sang-cheol worked to make sure things went accordingly. We kept exchanging opions throughout.
Kim Mi-hyang (actress)' - I tried to speak with a Seoul dialect, but it didn't sound natural. The director told me to speak with a Daegu dialect. My character married a man from Gyeongsang Provinces at a young age.
Audience Question - The scene where the main character walks to the roof of the hospital, it starts to snow. Any reasons why you made it like that?
Shin A-ga (director) - Hyun-Soon believes blindly that she receives God's words. She even abandons her family. Now she finds herself in a contradiction. I thought she might see God at this painful moment on the rooftop. Usually, she received God's words through a religious person, but at that moment when she admits that she hates her sister she possibly finds enlightenment. To express that I put the snow into the scene.
Audience Question - I'm curious how Hyun-Soon became like that?
Shin A-ga (director) - Hyun-Soon suffers from a lack of love, it shows through the way she dresses and her eating habits. She isn't even loved by her own immediate family, including her own daughter. Because of this, Hyun-Soon focuses on God who gives her that unconditional love. Hyun-Soon's husband is not mentioned in the film, but I set it up as the husband left her, because of her religious fanaticism.
Audience Question - I thought Hyun-Soon's face at the rooftop scene was so beautiful. Did the rooftop scene come out as you expected?
Shin A-ga (director) - When I went to that rooftop while scouting, I felt immediately this place was it. That rooftop had what exactly what I imagined for the rooftop scene. But, the scene didn't come out as well as expected. When writing the screenplay, I wrote into that scene lines spoken by God, which wouldn't work in the movie. I thought a good bit about how to express Hyun-Soon's communication with God. then thought "how about having it snow?" The audio engineer put in the sound of a bell to express Hyun-Soon listening to God's words, like the movie "Breaking the Waves". I thought at that moment Hyun-Soon can hear God's words, but only Hyun-Soon can hear those words. I didn't want it so obvious so I put in the sound of a little bell.
Audience Question - In the mountain area, a religious person says something to Hyun-Soon and then Hyun-Soon goes back to the hospital. What did the religious person say?
Shin A-ga (director) - It was from the Bible. I do not remember clearly. Something like "that was like woman, your belief is big, so will come true what you wish". That is what Hyun-Soon wants to hear.
Audience Question - The movie seems to be talking to the audience. Was that intentional? Also, in the movie the male characters are very weak. Do you have a plan to make a manly movie? Lastly, I think the character Soo-Jin is sort of the medium to resolve the family's conflict. Did you plan it that way or did it just turn out that way?
Shin A-ga (director) - About your first question, when I made the movie the most important thing to me was having a natural acting tone for the actors and actresses. The story takes place in one day. For one day, the unordinary happens. I wanted the audience to experience that in real time. Because of that I used a lot of close-up shots. About the weak male characters. Around me, most men are like that. In the movie, the female characters are strong, so I wanted the male characters to give love and embrace the female characters. I plan to work with Lee Sang-cheol in the future. We haven't decided on our next project yet. Personally, I want to make a movie with a bunch of strong women characters like a female version of hard boiled HK noire film "The Killer" or Korean movie "Silmido". About Soo-Jin, while I wrote the screenplay we decided to have Soo-Jin as the medium to resolve the family's conflict. The reason I decided to write the screenplay goes back to 7 years ago when my grandmother passed away. Similar things happened to me then. At the time, there was a divide between people who wanted to end her life support system and people who opposed that. After I learned about that, I thought what if my mother, aunts and uncles brought me in and told me to chose? I think that point reflects on Soo-Jin.