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  • The Rise of the Religious Thriller
  • by Pierce Conran /  Mar 13, 2019
  • The Varied Colors of Korean Faith on Screen

    Compared to most countries, Korea has a very eclectic religious makeup, and when the various beliefs of the country’s constituents influence cinema, the results on screen have been equally eclectic.

    Of the 44% of Koreans who declare a religion, about 45% are Protestants and a further 18% Catholics, while beyond Christianity, 35% of declared religious followers in Korea practice Buddhism, although this field of religion can also comprise Shamanism, as distinction between the two faiths in Korea among practitioners is anything but clear. As such, Christianity, Buddhism and Shamanism have each, in their own ways, colored Korean cinema.

    Elements of these faiths have provided thematic and textural elements to Korean cinema for years - Catholicism in PARK Chan-wook’s Thirst (2008) and Shamanism in LEE Yong-ju’s Possessed (2009) to name but a few - but more recently their inclusion in both mainstream and independent titles appears to have grown more prominent, while certain religion-themed thrillers have experienced enormous popularity at the box office.

    Some of these films have explored issues of trust and corruption surrounding new churches, such as YEON Sang-ho’s The Fake (2013), which looks at the fraudulent activities of charlatans setting up fake religions to induce donations from congregants, or the possible sexual indiscretions of a reverend in SHIN Yeon-shick’s Romans 8:37 (2017).

    2019 has already welcomed one hit religious thriller (SVAHA : THE SIXTH FINGER) and another is included in the lineup of this year’s big-budget summer releases (The Divine Fury). For this week’s KoBiz feature, we take a look at some of the major religious thrillers of recent years.

    The Fake (2013)

    Director YEON Sang-ho

    After his nihilistic takedown of the ruthless hierarchy and bullying pervasive throughout school systems in Korea, in the critically acclaimed The King of Pigs (2011), animation director YEON Sang-ho (prior to his live action debut with 2016’s TRAIN TO BUSAN) turned his attention to fraudulent religions in his sophomore animated feature The Fake.

    In a small village set to be submerged to make way for a new dam, villagers are being conned by a man who promises them a place in afterlife through his religion, which he uses to pilfer their compensation money. A local good-for-nothing is the only person able to see through his lies but his drunken and violent behavior make it impossible for anyone to believe him. With its dark and cynical view of society and the predatory tactics uses on credulous congregants, The Fake was strongly received by critics and viewers, starting at the Toronto International Film Festival.

    The Priests (2015)

    Director JANG Jae-hyun

    For his debut feature, Director JANG Jae-hyun adapted his short film 12th Assistant Deacon, a Grand Prize winner at Mise-en-scene Short Film Festival, into the occult thriller The Priests with KIM Yun-seok and GANG Dong-won. The tale of a case of possession that finds its way to Korea after a failed cover-up by the highest levels of the Catholicism, JANG’s film is Korea’s answer to the prestige supernatural thrillers of yesteryear Hollywood, namely The Exorcist.

    After a mysterious hit-and-run incident, a young girl is left in a coma and before long a Father Kim, a priest from her parish, begins to suspect that she may be possessed. Along with the help of the young seminarian Choi, he begins the complicated dual processes of exorcising the spirit residing within her and of resisting the meddling of his superiors in the church order and their dubious motivations.

    THE WAILING (2016)

    Director NA Hong-jin

    Following his propulsive pair of thrillers, The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2010), director NA Hong-jin spent several years developing and then fine-tuning his third film, the countryside mystery-horror THE WAILING, which debuted out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. NA’s work explores the darker sides of spiritualism in Korea, with HWANG Jung-min playing a shaman whose manic and bloody rituals seek to root out an evil, foreign spirit that has brought death and despair to the region.

    A mysterious old man appears in a peaceful village but before anyone can figure out who he is, residents begin to die in strange and violent ways. A local policeman is helpless in the face of the escalating terror and when his own daughter falls dangerously ill, he enlists the help of a powerful shaman. NA’s riveting third film explores the unknowability of spirituality and plays with the fear of unknown, particularly through a memorable sequence of intense sacrificial rituals.

    Romans 8:37 (2017)

    Director SHIN Yeon-shick

    Literary indie filmmaker SHIN Yeon-shick has never been a stranger to challenging films, having released hardcore festival fare such as the lyrical The Russian Novel (2013) or the mystical Jeonju Cinema Project The Avian Kind (2015) in the past, but in 2017 he took an even bigger gamble with his theological treatise Romans 8:37, which combines questions of faith and societal corruption in a story of a devout young man whose very core begins to shake when his trust in the church and reverend he works with is thrown into question.

    SHIN’s work is hardly the first Korean indie film to put a church group under the microscope and expose the hidden motivations that sometimes lie at their core, such as KIM Tae-yong’s 2014 debut Set Me Free, but no film has ever burrowed so deep not only into the repercussions of betrayals in the faith community but the ideological and psychological motivations that create these social structures in the first place.


    Director JANG Jae-hyun

    LEE Jung-jae leads the cast of SVAHA : THE SIXTH FINGER as the head of a group that investigates fraud in religions. During his investigations into the ‘Deer Mount’ cult, he begins to connect clues that point to several missing person cases that seem to involve an enforcer, played by PARK Jung-min, who is also the subject of an investigation by a tenacious police officer.

    Four years after The PriestsJANG Jae-hyun returned with another religious thriller, this time taking aim at the spread of fraudulent churches of cults, much as YEON’s The Fake had several years earlier. Though not at the level of his debut, JANG’s new film has proven to be another success on the charts, welcoming over 2.3 million viewers.

    The Divine Fury (to be released)

    Director Jason KIM

    All this leads us up to what may be the largest and most ambitious religious-themed commercial film that Korean cinema has ever attempted, with the martial arts driven action-thriller The Divine Fury. The film is the fourth by director Jason KIM, whose 2017 commercial debut Midnight Runners was a major sleeper hit, accruing over 5.6 million admissions. KIM’s Midnight Runners star PARK Seo-jun joins him once more, while legendary star AHN Sung-ki is also on board.

    PARK plays a young man who lost his father in an accident as a child. Now a top martial artist, he crosses paths with a priest and exorcist who enlists his help in a fight against a powerful evil. The Divine Fury is currently in post-production and is expected to be released in theaters at some point this summer.
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