A Question of Faith – Svaha: The Sixth Finger
Back when I still worked at a video store, I watched a Taiwanese movie from 2002 called Double Vision here in the States. It was a supernaturally-tinged serial killer flick that I would later dub “True Detective: Season Zero” when I re-watched it earlier this year. I liked it enough that I cribbed its doubled-iris idea for a couple of my own stories.
Svaha: The Sixth Finger reminded me a lot of Double Vision. Both of them feel like pretty standard procedural mysteries in some ways, while also layering in supernatural and occult phenomena and an atmosphere of religious mysticism. Both deal not just with esoteric splinter cults out in some backwoods area, but with major religious institutions in the middle of the city. And both feature a physical “tell” to indicate their either nefarious or divine supernatural figures.
For an idea of what to expect from Svaha, imagine a cocktail mixed from The Wailing, True Detective, and a snowy whodunit like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Throw in just a jigger of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” and then mix all that liberally with what one Letterboxd reviewer called “a solemn halo of mystery,” and you’ve got The Sixth Finger, a brew that’s best enjoyed when you have a lot of time on your hands and you’re willing to be patient.
We’re dropped into the deep end pretty quickly as we meet a young girl who was born on a day when the goats wouldn’t stop wailing. Her twin sister, which fed on her leg in the womb, was also born that same day, covered in dark, matted hair. She is believed to be a demon, and the doctor thinks that she will die quickly, but she doesn’t. Instead, she is imprisoned in a shed out behind the girl’s grandparents’ house, down a row of dog cages.
No spoilers, now, because this all happens within the first ten minutes of this strange and sprawling film. From there, we are introduced to our main character, a Christian pastor who spends his time investigating religious sects, exposing frauds and con artists and worse. Pastor Park isn’t the great guy that this might make him seem, however. Shortly after our introduction to him, we see him being pelted with eggs on the street by nuns, and his demeanor seems almost as opportunistic and predatory as those he is hunting.
Into this mix of gray areas comes a murder mystery, as the body of a young girl is found cemented up in a bridge. Pastor Park gets involved when it turns out that the killer may have some connection to Deer Mount, a seemingly innocuous Buddhist sect that he is investigating less because he actually thinks they have anything to hide than because exposing them would mean big money for his research institute, so he’s determined to find something, even if nothing is there.
This time around, though, something is there, a mystery that unfurls gradually across decades and throughout the countryside as it turns out the death of the one little girl is far from isolated. It seems that someone is convinced that girls born in a specific place and time are evil “snakes,” destined to harm an otherwise immortal deity in human form unless they can be stopped.
Is it possible that Park has found a living god? Is the cult of killers really carrying out good work? Just who is who, and what does any of it have to do with the “demon” girl locked in the shed, who can call forth snakes and command birds?
These questions mostly get answered before the film’s closing credits finally roll, but the explanations may be a little metaphysically vague for outsiders to the religious traditions that the film is trading in—imagine watching The Exorcist while barely knowing what Catholicism even is, let alone having any insider knowledge of Catholic dogma.
Another Letterboxd viewer calls Svaha “a cult horror disguised as a mystery film” that eventually becomes “pure supernatural horror” by the end, though I would disagree with at least the second part of that summation.
While supernatural horror is certainly at work at the end of the movie, and while there are moments in the lead-up that would be right at home in an American ghost movie, the conclusion of Svaha treads very different ground than at least what Western audiences are conditioned to expect in a supernatural horror picture. Its resolution is more thaumaturgy than spook show, though what conclusions, if any, you can draw about the truths of any given religious doctrine are left obscure, at least to this viewer.
Enjoying Svaha requires that you come to it with a certain disposition. If, like me, you can’t get enough of movies where people spend a lot of time sort through papers and looking at old photographs, and also can’t get enough of movies about secretive cults, then Svaha probably has more than enough to keep you occupied for its two-hour-plus running time. For everyone else, you may find the plot threads—which run parallel for much of the movie before finally intertwining—difficult to follow, and you may not feel that the resolution was worth it all when they finally do.
Even for those who leave Svaha wanting something a little more, it’s hard to deny the beauty of some of its sequences. A shot of hanging ghosts that could have been a cheesy jump scare becomes haunting and almost touching. A reveal of an elephant is as unexpected and awe-inspiring as any monster. A barn full of cows carries the heavy freight of the film’s supernatural implications. Fireworks in the snowy night provide a lovely counterpoint to a poignant final scene.
Svaha is the second feature from director Jae-hyun Jang and is currently streaming on Netflix.