Director – Min Kyu-dong – 2020 – South Korea – Cert. 12a – 108m
Just how capable are caregiver androids of looking after their terminally ill patients? – thought-provoking science fiction from the London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF), on now
In a vast, multi-storey building complex, end of life patients are attended by Caregivers, lifelike female androids programmed to perform all the necessary tasks of palliative care, their faces modelled after their purchaser. Manufactured by the German TRS Corporation, they come in a variety of models, including an entry-level type with only basic functions and a more advanced models which can cope better with patients’ needs.
One patient is surrounded by Christian friends of his wife loudly singing praise and worship songs, to the annoyance of those living in nearby units. Adherents of the Christian religion play quite a significant part in the narrative, with nun Sister Sabina (Ye Soo-jung) going round putting stickers wherever she can in these complexes inviting people to phone her if they want to pray.
They might well want to take up her offer. A lot of the patients’ relatives / carers could do with some sort of assistance. Mrs. Choi (Yum Hye-ran from Default, Choi Kook-hee, 2018; Memories Of Murder, Bong Joon Ho, 2003) has sold the family home to pay for a Caregiver (also Yum Hye-ran) for her dementia-stricken husband (Yoon Kyung-ho from Okja, Bong Joon Ho, 2017). He moans about wanting to go home and behaves like a small child, scattering toys and sweets over the floor and playing ‘ghost’ by dumping a bed sheet over his exasperated wife’s head. It’s enough to drive a spouse to murder…
The Caregiver herself (or itself) isn’t much help. She (or it) is programmed to care for the patient, but has no concept of any difficulties that a carer other than a robot might be experiencing. She / it is only an entry-level model, after all. It doesn’t help that Mrs. Choi is too old to learn how to programme the machine properly.
The younger, more educated and wealthier Jung-in (Lee Yoo-young) not only has the more advanced model, Gan Ho-joong (also Lee Yoo-young) to care for her mother who’s been in a coma for the last ten years, she has also had it programmed to look after her self as well as her mother. Nevertheless, Jung-in is driven to distraction by her mother’s vegetative state and just can’t take it any more. She stands leaning against the waist-height wall overlooking the ninth floor stairwell and looks down. Will she jump? Her phone slips out of her hand, falls the nine floors…
How much can the Caregivers understand? Do they have feelings? Gan Ho-joong grapples with emotional situations beyond her programming. Jung-in recognises the Caregiver as the one person who keeps her sane, although both know she/it is not actually a person. (Or is she?) Gan Ho-joong seeks to understand that perhaps it would be better for everyone if she w Sabina is horrified, and tries to find her. To visit and talk and pray before the Caregiver does something rash. Can she find her in time?
For the finale, Sister Sabina travels to Berlin where, at TRS corporate headquarters, she meets the Caregiver now permanently bound to a sometimes upright, sometimes horizontal operating trolley resembling a hospital trolley when horizontal. The android is in torment. There’s a button on her side which will shut her down. She begs the nun to press it, but Sister Sabina is opposed to ending another’s life.
Without being in any way forced, this film is devoid of male characters capable of decisive action. Doctors are distant males who make their diagnoses then leave the female Caregiver robots to do the in person work and carers to suffer emotionally, physically and financially. The male exec at TRS allows Sister Sabina to visit the restrained Caregiver but appears impotent beyond that point with any further action left in the hands of the Caregiver or her visitor when the two meet.
The narrative grapples with the dual problems of robots replacing humans in certain jobs – would they? can they? – and euthanasia. It’s an expansion of the opening episode of the director’s TV series SF8 (2020), or perhaps that’s a heavily trimmed down version of this (the TV episode runs 55m). Clearly there were themes and issues there Min wanted to explore further in this story, and the longer feature film format provided the ideal place to do so. It doesn’t however feel like small screen fare, more like a big screen movie.
Mrs. Choi struggles to kill her demented husband. Gan Ho-joong wrestles with whether she should kill the comatose patient in her care. And behind all this is an unquestioned acceptance of a capitalist, for profit, pay as you need healthcare system where people ordinary must pay sometimes crippling costs to look after loved ones. I’d like to be able to say that we don’t have that problem in the UK with our NHS and its “free at the point of need” ethos, but sadly that doesn’t extend to decent, palliative end of life care in all cases.
Whether you take the film as drama or science fiction, it’s undoubtedly powerful stuff, unafraid to dip its toes into robotics, religion, euthanasia and more. There are slight echoes of Roujin-Z (Hiroyuki Kitakubo, 1991). Sadly The Prayer has no UK distributor at the time of writing.
The Prayer plays in LEAFF, the London East Asia Film Festival, on now.
LEAFF 2021 Official Trailer:
London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) programme (please click links):