[From September 20th to the 30th, the Korea Society in New York will be hosting a series of screenings called “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today” at the Museum of Modern Art. Over the week, we will be bringing you reviews of a select number of them. For more information, head here.]
What do you do when someone you love is in a vegetative state? How long do you wait before you pull the plug? Is taking a person like that off life support equivalent to murder? None of these are easy questions, and they’re questions that hopefully not many people will ever have to consider. But some people do, and many of them will turn to religion for guidance. This creates a whole other set of problems and questions. If science, medicine, and rationality all say that there is essentially no chance of a recovery, but some spiritual voice says there is, what then? Is there any way to reconcile these clashing beliefs?
In just 90 minutes, Jesus Hospital tries to take on all of these questions and more, and it succeeds.
Well… mostly succeeds.
Jesus Hospital (Mingkeu Koteu | 밍크코트)
Directors: Shin A-Ga, Lee Sang-Cheol
Country: South Korea
Jesus Hospital is a film about family, although I wouldn’t call it a “family film.” After their mother goes from ill to permanently comatose, Hyung-Soon (Hwang Jung-Min), Myung-Soon (Kim Mi-Hyang), and Joon-Ho (Lee Jong-Yoon) are faced with the questions I posited in the introduction. Mentally and financially strained by their mother’s illness, Myung-Soon and Joon-Ho quickly give in and sign the paperwork. Hyung-Soon, however, refuses. But it’s not just a refusal. Hyung-Soon tells her siblings that they are murderers who will burn in hell for what they are doing, and she attacks the hospital workers who try to follow the directions of her siblings. Why nobody called the police following what legitimately counts as assault is beyond me, but then the rest of the movie couldn’t have happened. It’s just one of those times you have to suspend disbelief.
Hyung-Soon’s religious fervor is problematic for the siblings, both of whom are considered Christians in good standing at their church. She has joined something of a cult, although it’s not entirely clear what the cult is or does. As far as I could tell, the cult consisted of Hyung-Soon meeting another woman in random places while reciting passages from the Bible. Perhaps there was more to it, perhaps there wasn’t, but the state of mind that it puts Hyung-Soon in is the issue. She also has no financial stake in the affair. Making barely enough money to survive delivering milk, she has left the responsibility of paying for the hospital bills to everybody else in the family. If her mother is on life support for ten more years, it will have no real impact on Hyung-Soon.
The same cannot be said for the siblings, who have already done some less-than-moral things to make ends meet. Myung-Soon and Joon-Ho do their best to work out ways around Hyung-Soon’s stubbornness. They try to trick her out of the hospital so they can get on with the merciful ending of their mother’s life. It’s a complicated affair, but it doesn’t work out perfectly (these things never do). When things didn’t work out, there was a moment where I thought the film was going to take a turn for the ridiculous. But it didn’t, and what it actually did was far more interesting. The ethical dilemma that the family (and Hyung-Soon especially) has to face in the final act of the film is even more complicated than the one they’re facing in the first. The setup itself seems a bit silly, because it requires a series of unfortunate coincidences to be even remotely reasonable, but again, I just had to suspend my disbelief.
Honestly, I had to do that quite a bit. One of the bigger questions surrounding the mother’s death is whether or not she would want to be resuscitated, if she could be. She has no living will (or a Korean equivalent) to speak of, so it’s generally up to the kids to decide. Two of them decide she wanted to die, and one of them decides that she didn’t. But there’s a problem: the audience knows which she wanted. At the beginning of the film, which takes place 8 months before the events in the hospital, the family, with the mother concious and unhappy, sits down to dinner. The majority of the meal conversation consists of the mother talking about her own death and her praying for said death. There’s no ambiguity in her dialogue or any reason to doubt her feelings. So when it comes time for there to be some ambiguity in the mother’s wishes, there is none. The matter has been settled. Without that scene, everything would have been hearsay, which would have changed the context of the arguments dramatically.
That being said, the various revelations about the various members of the family still give the whole thing an interesting edge. The issue is that they aren’t revealed until late in the game. By that point, things have sort of settled on one side or another, and it doesn’t have the same impact on the situation at hand, although they will obviously have repercussions beyond the credits. Religion is clearly a defining factor in all of their lives, even if most of them aren’t as in-your-face as Hyung-Soon is, and that comes into play during most of the family faceoffs that take place. Everyone’s moral code is questioned, everyone’s life decisions are questioned, and there is just a general sense of religious hostility. The fact that the mother’s hospital room-mate has an obvious distaste for Christians is kind of strange and even though it occasionally adds some humor to the mix, it just aggravates the situation further.
When this all comes together, as it does for the majority of the film, it makes Jesus Hospitalvery compelling. How you feel about pulling the plug, so to speak, may immediately place you on one side of the argument or the other (as it did me), and that could certainly influence how you perceive the drama, but it’s powerful enough that most people may shift their feelings about the situation at least once during the film. There are times when everything breaks down and Jesus Hospital reminds you that it’s just a movie, but those are the exception rather than the rule. The turns that the film takes are pretty surprising, and while the final decision didn’t really surprise me (going any other way would have completely destroyed the family), it was still a relatively tense and moving moment.
Jesus Hospital is not going to change anyone’s life, and it probably won’t do much to affect anyone’s worldview. It successfully tackles some big issues, and the filmmakers should be commended for that, but it’s hardly perfect. Still, I think it’s a movie that people should see. Maybe somebody more empathetic than I am will find it to be a revelatory experience, but even if they don’t, I still think they’ll be glad they saw it. I’m glad I did.