No 2017 K-drama is more relevant with today’s world political situation (hail the rise of the right!) than OCN’s ‘Save Me’. Watching the show, there’s this eerie feel that I can’t seem to escape from, like that of Nic Pizzolatto’s ‘True Detective’. Both are set in somber rural towns and both explore the theme of Christianity. While ‘True Detective’ (Season 1) followed two detectives in their pursuit of a serial killer, ‘Save Me’ depicts one town’s Christian cult and its connection with the town’s politicians. Based on a webcomic Out of the World (세상 밖으로) by Jo Geum San, the timing of ‘Save Me’ couldn’t be any more perfect. Though the webcomic was published from 2011 to 2013, but South Korea recently was shaken up by a similar scandal, where former South Korea’s President Park Eun Hye was impeached last year after her bizarre political scandal with advisers, Choi Tae Min, a self-proclaimed pastor and founder of an obscure sect called the Church of Eternal Life, then his daughter, Choi Soon Sil.
But if we are going to look at it from a different perspectives, quoting this article, “Many South Koreans speak contemptuously of Choi as a shaman, and rumor abounds that the Ms. Park might have held shamanistic exorcisms with Choi. But to go by the culture in South Korea, where it is still common to consult shamans and make spirit offerings at important events in life, not to mention attend these fervently spiritual church services, what the president might have done, if it is true at all, wasn’t that unusual.” Personally, when it comes to faith, it really is a grey area.
Somber and cinematic, ‘Save Me’ feels like the small screen’s interpretation of Korean noir cinema, with dark visuals and bizarre characters. It even doesn’t shy away from gore (though of course, it is altered way milder to follow the television rating system guidance), something that the genre is really familiar with.
The story follows Sang Mi (Seo Ye Ji) and her family who move to a small town then later join the congregation, called Goosunwon, following a series of unfortunate events. The town’s cult leader, called the Spiritual Father, apparently has set his eyes on Sang Mi, the moment he laid eyes on her. Spiritual Father wants to “save” her by turning her into Spiritual Mother because “the world that we live in is full of evil and in order for all of us to get on the Boat of Salvation on the day of judgement, we need to take in a pure scapegoat.” Sang Mi, is that pure scapegoat that will allow all of them to receive salvation (Episode 8).
It is probably best described by Hong So Rin (Jeon Yeo Bin) when she said, “This is just my hunch, but I don’t think it’s a simple alliance between a religion and the political circle. Muji will be thrown upside down. Actually, it may affect the entire country” and also by Han Sang Hwan (Taec Yeon), “My father, Governor Han Yong Min, colluded with a religious cult and tried to build a sanitarium in order to obtain and launder illegal funds.”
To refresh our memory, the Holy See too was caught in the Vatican leaks scandal in 2012, where leaked Vatican documents exposed alleged corruptions. Several high-ranking officials within the Curia viewed the Vatican bank, officially known as the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), as something akin to a trust company for clandestine monetary transactions that is not only used by the Church, but allegedly also by the mafia as well as corrupt politicians and companies. For more than 40 years, the IOR, founded in 1942, has been regularly embroiled in scandals, including bribery money for political parties, mafia money-laundering and, repeatedly, anonymous accounts.
Scandals involving religion institutions are of course, nothing new and have been happening for centuries, so it shouldn’t be as shocking. But I guess, still, it’s a reality that some find it uncomfortable and disturbing to accept, especially for the devout (organised) Christians in this case. And I also guess that portraying a cult is easier to accept to some, because cult is the other.
Religions, whether they are organised religions or cults, and politics have been intertwined since the early days of human civilisation. They mutually work for each other’s benefit and goals and ‘Save Me’ got most everything right, delivering the complex relations in an unassuming narrative.
The bleak depictions of this sad reality are thankfully delivered by a great ensemble of well-cast actors. All of them give an enjoyable and believable performances, but for one. Unfortunately, that one is the supposedly main lead, Taec Yeon, whom parts I suspect are intentionally watered-down because of his rookie-ish performance. Instead, they bring Seok Deong Cheol (Woo Do Hwan) to the limelight, which turns out to be to be the best decision the makers made because not only he triumphs over Taec Yeon, but he also matches perfectly with Seo Ye Ji. Theatrical at times, Seo Ye Ji breathes a cinematic feel to Im Sang Mi, if that makes any sense at all. I can’t pinpoint what it is exactly with her. Maybe it’s her poetic visual and the deep, charismatic voice.
I don’t think I have ever seen Park Ji Young in any role as complex as Apostle Kang Eun Sil before (well, not in my obviously short history of watching K-dramas). A mother who lost her daughter to, guess who? None other than the Spiritual Father. But strangely, instead of leaving the congregation he built, she went even deeper in hopes of reaching the ultimate dream, the nirvana. Her vicious partner is Apostle Jo Wan Tae (Jo Jae Yoon). Though most of the times I can’t get rid of his comical image, but Jo Jae Yoon is definitely an all-round actor. He switches gestures smoothly, from obedient servant to sexual offender to the materialistic con artist.
There is also Go Joon as Cha Joon Go, who stole many scenes for me. Playing a small supporting role, he looks strikingly similar to Hwang Jung Min in ‘Man In Love’, from his facial expressions, gestures to his flowing tacky printed shirt.
The most impressive of them all is of course Jo Seong Ha as The Spiritual Father, who somehow looks like the interpretation of Benny Hinn, an Israeli televangelist, best known for his regular “Miracle Crusades” — revival meeting or faith healing summits (Spiritual Father also holds such meetings in the show), also infamous for his controversial aspect of teaching on, and demonstration of, a phenomenon he dubs “The Anointing”—the power purportedly given by God and transmitted through Hinn to carry out supernatural acts. The Spiritual Father too, thinks that he is the father of all spirits who will lead his people to the paradise. He is undoubtedly a paedophile psychopath hid in a reserved and dignified facade and a fatherly figure.
Though I had wished for a less cliché and a grimmer ending, but I assume it’s probably considered too much for the majority of the K-drama audience. Still, it’s one hell of a solid ride though.