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How this South Korean movie about a sinful church helps to shine a spotlight on us all

Monday, October 23, 2017, 15:42 (IST)

Given that South Korea boasts the biggest megachurch in the world, Yoido Full Gospel Church – founded in 1958 to serve the poor who moved to the capital city of Seoul– it is a brave enterprise to make a film that shines a light on the darker sides of such a church in such a place.

But that is exactly what the new Korean movie Romans 8:37, named after Paul's line, 'But in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us', appears to do.

Roman's 8:37, made by the acclaimed director and screenwriter Shin Yeon-shick, reportedly (disclaimer: this writer has not yet seen the film) tackles the power struggles, corruption and even sexual abuse inside a South Korean church.

According to Screendaily.com, it is 'an insightful exploration of the Christian faith' while reaffirming 'Shin's talent as one of the strongest writers working in the independent Korean cinema scene'.

The film includes quotations from both the Old and New Testaments throughout the narrative, which is about a minister who confronts a senior pastor over allegations of embezzlement. Rev Kang Joseph (Seo Dong-gao) establishes a panel to handle the accusations, but there is a twist when Kang is himself contacted by a TV producer saying he has been accused of sexual harassment. What follows includes a series of accusations, including one of rape, and a battle within the church, which does not wish to investigate itself.

This is all too familiar church territory, and Screen Daily compares it to the stunningly good US film Spotlight, about the Boston Catholic abuse cover-up and its unveiling by the Boston Globe.

But the film is not without its frustrations, by all accounts.

According to the review site Screen Anarchy, 'Shin's film goes to extreme lengths to show some mid-ranking church group members investigate Reverend Kang's secrets. What they find is hardly surprising and over 130 minutes, the narrative slowly heads in a pre-destined direction. Instead the story prioritises the crisis of faith experienced by these investigators as no matter what they uncover, it isn't long before their protestations are quashed in one way or another. For a film that explores hierarchy, it's surprising how little we come to understand of the group's byzantine structure by the end, though this, as well as the fact that very little changes between start and finish, is surely intentional.'

Nonetheless, any movie that today riskily takes the interior life of a church seriously deserves credit.

This, arguably, is especially true in a country with one of the biggest megachurch movements on the planet. But it is also a rare feat anywhere — let alone in a place which is sometimes accused of falling victim to 'groupthink' — for a film (or series) to show individuals in a light in which others see them (the brilliant BBC series Broken starring Sean Bean as a troubled Catholic priest in the north of England springs to mind, but little else that is contemporary).

Even if this film has its limitations, then, Shin Yeon-shick clearly deserves praise for exploring the fact that churches, like all institutions, are made up of broken and flawed human beings, complicated individuals who are vessels of both good and bad and, yes, often hypocrites.

After all, as the 17th–century French author Francois de La Rochefoucauld once wisely said, 'Hypocrisy is the complement that vice plays to virtue'.