Writer-director Shin Yeon-shick returns to Busan for the fifth time with Romans 8:37, a thoughtful if not exactly thought-provoking theological tale of faith, suffering and coverups. Focusing exclusively on the complicated inner workings and relationships of a Korean church, this lengthy film will prove challenging for some viewers, particularly those outside the faith.
A popular young minister tries to stand up to a senior, who he believes is taking the church in the wrong direction, as it begins to show political colors. In his quest he asks the Deacon Giseop, who is also his brother-in-law, to help him expose corruption within the group. What Kang doesn't bargain for is for Giseop to also uncover allegations of sexual abuse leveled at him and as he explores these further, the allies find themselves on opposite sides.
Romans 8:37, one of about a dozen bible quotes that break up the narrative's various sequences, reads "But in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." The passage infers that justice will prevail, but as Giseop learns, things are not so simple.
A devout Christian himself, Shin has often explored faith in his works, whether through spiritual narratives or the leaps of faith that protagonists take in their stories, though never so overtly as he has here. Romans 8:37 focuses on the fractious divisions and obfuscations of a church and chronicles certain character's struggles with not just their spiritual faith, but especially their faith in others.
Shin's work explores both the problematic juxtaposition of faith within the hypocrisy and shadiness of a religious organization, but also more broadly references the ability of powerful organizations to hide misdeeds or ignore them for the greater good of the group. Here this takes the form a gross pattern of sexual predation, and at the time of the film's premiere, it's hard for one's thoughts not to drift back to the major scandal rocking the film industry today, as another power-hungry sex abuser is finally being exposed after decades of payoffs and legions of people turning a blind eye.
Though a worthy subject, 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 prioritizes 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.
From both a performance and technical standpoint, the film is strong if not altogether memorable. Lee Hyun-ho and Seo Dong-kab as Giseop and Reverend Kang convincingly play complex characters while Choi Yong-jin's soberly films the many interactions behind closed doors and the menacing tones of Mowg's score pulse below the film's shady tradeoffs.
The involved interplay of themes and shifting organizational ranks is well handled by Shin, known for his stellar scripts for Lee Joon-ik's Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet and his own films such as The Russian Novel and The Avian Kind. Despite the impressive contributions of those involved, as a whole Romans 8:37 is a difficult pill to swallow, as the battles it evokes may be more present in the director's mind than the audience's.