A Film a Week - Svaha: The Sixth Finger / Sabaha

previously published on Asian Movie Pulse
"Svaha: The Sixth Finger" was never intended to be an award-grabbing festival darling, and its distribution trajectory, having a domestic release before becoming a minor hit world-wide on the internet market, clearly shows that. Neither the film, labelled as a supernatural thriller, nor its director, Jang Jae-hyun, known for his writing and directing work on similar projects like "The Priests" (both writing and directing credits) and the remake of the Venezuelan minor horror sensation "The House at the End of Time", renamed "House of the Disappeared" for Korean version (written by Jang and directed by Lim Dae-wung), fit the festival kind of profile. But envisioned and crafted properly, "Svaha: The Sixth Finger" is more than a decent past-time, far better than Dan Brown novels' screen adaptations (the DNA of the script and the characters has some similarities with them), but still not quite as brilliant as Na Hong-jin's "The Wailing".

The original title "Svaha" ("Sabaha" in the transcription from Korean) has its roots in Buddhism and Hinduism, as it is a word that is used at the end of mantra. From Sanskrit, it is translatable as "Well said", while in Tibetan, the meaning is closer to "So be it", which sounds eerily Abrahamic. The expression travelled together with Buddhism, from India to Tibet, China, Japan and Korea. On the other hand, "The Sixth Finger" (pun intended) part, added for the international video markets, is a plot point that will not be discussed any further in order to keep the spoilers at bare minimum in this pretty much plot-driven story.

The film opens with a narration by Geun-hwa (Lee Jae-in), a simple country girl, who explains that she was born with a demonic twin sister, that she lost her parents early on and that she was raised by her grandparents. As a character, she will find her way to the centre of the plot around the midpoint of the film, but as a narrator, she will be absent until the very end, making a full circle, which is a bit schticky, but efficient.

The story itself revolves around the murders that lead to the pseudo-Buddhist religious cult called The Deer Mount and its mysterious founder and leader Ye-seok (Jeong Dong-hwan). While they are being officially investigated by the police and its chief Hwang (Jung Jin-young), they also draw the attention of Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae), a man specialized in investigating and exposing the cults and pseudo-religious groups, who becomes our protagonist. With the help of the two of his employees, driver Joseph and deaconess-secretary Sim (Hwang Jung-min) and the valuable information provided by his Buddhist monk friend Hae-an (Jin Seong-kyu, glimpsed in "The Extreme Job"), he is on his way to solve the mystery that exceeds the borders of the material world.

In the exposition stage of the plot, "Svaha: The Sixth Finger" is an intriguing and high-revving piece of movie fun, with a couple of set-piece scenes that provide a nerve-wrecking tension and are directed with elegance and efficiency by Jang. Also, the setting of the urban and rural areas with different religious backgrounds around the Christmas time fills the film with a pretty unique atmosphere. The technical component of the film is usually spot-on, and Jang does his best to shift the tone either by fine-tuning, or by shifting gears regarding the tempo.

However, when all the threads converge into one, Svaha becomes pretty much straight-forward piece where every character does what it is supposed for them to do. Jang's attempts to change the rhythm with the flashback moments seem a bit clunky and the flashbacks themselves are quite unnecessary, since they tend to over-explain the clues and the twists planted just several scenes earlier. In the end, some 15 minutes of slightly over two hours of runtime could easily be trimmed off.

The thing that elevates "Svaha" above the line of average is the film's carefully picked cast. The actors are making an effort to breathe the life into the characters that are either stock, broadly sketched or a bit underdeveloped. Pastor Park even has some franchise potential as a character, while Lee has the star power to carry it. Park Jung-min's efficiency, complete with a dash of humanity, in his role here definitely paved the road for him for bigger things, like this year's Berlinale title "Time to Hunt". Jin Seong-kyu is quite compelling as the protagonist's consultant with a dash of nerdiness, while Lee Jae-In hits the right tones as Geum-hwa. Little known David Lee also puts himself on the map of talent with his role of Joseph that exceeds the frame of a basic sidekick.

Masterfully acted and for the most of the time efficiently directed, easy to follow "Svaha: The Sixth Finger" simply works as a good enough fun, regardless of occasional errors and clichés that could be traced back to the script. Make no mistake, this is not a masterpiece on any level, but it is still an example of a good genre film that works ideally on home platforms.

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