Rating:
Average user rating 5.0
23

SF8: The Prayer: Episode 1 (Review)

The first episode in MBC’s sci-fi anthology series, SF8, is a deep and disturbing take on what quality sci-fi does best: ask us questions about what it means to be human. Set in a futuristic world of nursing robots, The Prayer digs intensely into the question of humanity, and emotions like empathy, despair, and suffering.

 
EPISODE 1 REVIEW: “The Prayer”

We only see the occasional sci-fi story in dramaland, and when we do, it’s usually tempered with elements that make it more like a quintessential K-drama than anything else. Not so with The Prayer. This single-episode drama is the first of eight in the SF8 series, and if it’s any indication of the dramas to come, be assured there’s nothing pat or tropey about these stories.

The Prayer opens up introducing us to the Paradise Nursing Hospital, slowly exposing us to this dystopian world of the near future where people commission caregiving robots to nurse their hospitalized loved ones. We first meet YEON JUNG-IN (Lee Yoo-young). Her mother has been in a coma for 10 years, and for most of them, she’s taken care of 24/7 by the advanced nursing robot known as GAN HO-JOONG (also played by Lee Yoo-young). These nursing robots are made in the image of the family member that purchased them, so Ho-joong looks just like Jung-in, but with her nursing outfit and cute robot bob.

In a few passing scenes, we learn of the mental, emotional, and financial pressure Jung-in is under. Her printing business (painted as something esoteric and remote in her futuristic world) is failing, and we’re led to believe that purchasing a robot is extraordinarily expensive. On top of that, Jung-in has the daily agony of seeing her mother in a vegetative state, with no improvement.

A similar story plays out in a nearby room, where a woman CHOI JUNG-GIL (Yeom Hye-ran) nurses her ailing husband with the help of a nursing robot also in her image. However, because she’s less well off than Jung-in, she bought the “entry level” model; where Jung-in has meaningful conversations and interactions with her caring and intuitive robot, Jung-gil has no connection to hers. It only performs the most basic functions, and she’s left to do much of the nursing herself.

The Prayer paints a sobering picture of both women’s suffering, but it’s Jung-gil’s that reaches a terrible end first. With no end to her struggles and suffering in sight, Jung-gil tries to smother her husband in a heartbreaking and horrifying act of desperation. The caregiving robot, programmed to protect the patient at all costs, does just that, and Jung-gil is left more desperate than ever. Soon after she overdoses on some pills, and while she’s dying, her husband has a period of lucidity. She begs the robot to save her, but she’s only programmed to care for her husband. Sheesh, it’s dark, but it sheds light on the crux of what the drama looks at.

Jung-gil’s story also has an important bearing on the already-struggling Jung-in, and it sends her into a tailspin. She doesn’t turn up for a week, and during that time we spend most of it with Ho-joong, who I’ll argue is our real leading character.

The Prayer carries a lot of themes and elements that we’re used to seeing in sci-fi stories — the dystopic setting where nature is absent and technology has taken over, the important issues that an over-reliance on technology brings up, and also, the idea of an outlier.

Ho-joong is our outlier. She’s the expensive robot model with an important linguistic add-on, but it’s more than that. Ho-joong is incredibly sensitive, perceptive, emotive, and even develops a sense of morals and moral duty. Again and again she monitors Jung-in’s mental health, calculating numbers and using algorithms to assess how high-risk she is. What’s interesting, though, is that there’s more than data behind it — Ho-joong responds with feelings the same way a person would, and very different than a robot with a strict directive should.

Our robot sees the agony that Jung-in is in, and believes that if her mother were gone, Jung-in would be able to move on. Ho-joong soon gets caught in this dichotomy where she believes that, “One person must die to save the other.” She’s able to weigh the situation rationally, but at first she’s unable to decide whose life matters more: the patient in the coma she has been caring for, or the daughter who’s about to take her own life.

Here, The Prayer digs deeply into its theme, and we meet another important character, the nun SISTER SABINA (Yeh Soo-jung). The drama opened with her reading a verse from the Bible about Cain and Abel (a story about jealousy, anger, and fratricide) — it’s here that the famous “Am I my brother’s keeper?” line comes from. It’s the perfect touchstone for where our drama goes — murder, rage, the agony of guilt, and even the idea of “keeping” or caring for someone. When we meet Sabina again, she’s offering help to the caregivers at the hospital. It’s meant for humans, but Ho-joong calls the number, and has a long conversation with Sabina about her decision: Jung-in’s mother must die.

The Prayer is less than an hour long, but packs a heck of a punch. I’ve detailed the set-up that leads to the climax, and by the time we reach that point of the story, it’s clear what the drama is interested in exploring. We not only look at the morality (and consequences) of Ho-joong’s choice, but take a deep, dark look at the real question: who is more humane — the human or the robot? It’s not a question that’s answered as much as it is set up for us, and we’re left to weigh it along with the other themes the drama has explored. More than a story about a robot that becomes sentient and makes a life-altering decision, our drama examines so much more — I could wrap my brain around this for hours.

There’s the strange dynamic of the caregiving robot looking like the human who bought it, and the weird displacement that occurs there; there’s the whole Cain and Abel allegory about the wrong of shedding blood; the question of what it really means to be a caregiver; and the final question that’s posed around whether a robot’s life counts as a “life.”

While there’s no shortage of themes and messages to explore in The Prayer, it’s certainly not only cerebral. It’s as gripping as it is upsetting, but I think that’s what makes the deep and thematic aspect of the drama really work. In this sense it’s quite well-balanced and well-executed. Rather than a drama that you can easily let go of, The Prayer, and all the themes it examines, stays with you long after it’s over.

RELATED POSTS

Tags: , , , ,

23

Required fields are marked *

Eek, this sounds deep, creepy and sad. Thank you for your recap, missvictrix.

0
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Now, I have to watch SF8

0
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Wow... SF8 would be a place for review.

I knew it's not a recap, just a review like any traditional film reviews did.

That's great TV-movie crossover sci-fi series.

PS: I'll watch the entire eight in the future for now.

0
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

So, there’ll be a separate story for each episode?

1
1
reply

Required fields are marked *

Each episode is a completely stand-alone story with entirely different cast, different characters and different world.

4
reply

Required fields are marked *

Where can I watch this legally?

0
1
reply

Required fields are marked *

Comment was deleted

0
reply

Required fields are marked *

It is on Viki/Kocowa in the US.

1
reply

Required fields are marked *

You're right: this show really gives you more questions than answers, and in a good way. Kind of reminds me of Twilight Zone.
What I found especially interesting about ThePrayer is how it flips the human VS robot stereotpe. All the "real people" felt and looked cold, trapped in their roles or moral systems, not really listening or seeing each other, or making choices. Ironically the only one who acted "with her heart" was the robot. That last scene was also just... wow.

6
1
reply

Required fields are marked *

I thought the ending would be subdued, but the last scene - with that cavernous space, that creepy black plastic and Ye Soo-jung and Lee Yoo-young pulling out all the stops - was stunning.

Btw when it struck me how female-dominated the cast was, I looked up the director, Min Kyu-dong, and discovered that Ye, Lee and the legendary Moon Sook (as the comatose mum) were all in his most recent film about comfort women, Herstory.

7
reply

Required fields are marked *

I was disturbed and moved by The Prayer, even though the themes aren’t exactly new. The caregiving robot that acquires human characteristics reminds me a little of Otomo Katsuhiro’s anime Roujin Z (whose robot was given the voice of the patient’s late wife). Another film The Prayer appears to have some affinity with is the recent, much darker The Trouble With Being Born (which I have only read about - frankly I’m not sure I want to see it).

Ultimately it isn’t so much the themes as the incidental details of The Prayer that hit me the hardest. The hopelessness of the dank corridors and dim rooms. The fact that highly advanced technology is still only available to the financially better off. The robot next door apparently being modelled on the patient’s mother, not his long-suffering wife. The truly unnerving relationship between the daughter and her robot counterpart - and it isn't just what happens after the robot makes her decision, but the hints of a reciprocal sexual attraction. The not-quite-empathetic queasiness I felt when someone mistreated a robot. All in all, a very promising start to the series.

7
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Thank you for the recap @missvictrix!

I love this series!
And Yeom Hye-ran... What a fantastic actress she is.

I really like MBC's recent dramas, She Knows Everything, Chip-in (United Effort to...) and this!

I'm looking forward to the next episode "Manxin" starring Lee Dong-hwi, Lee Yeon-hee and Seo Hyun-Woo (Moo-Jin in Flower of Evil).

3
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

i am going to be sooo selective about what i watch in this antho. I sensed some serious darkness coming on and, as is my wont, fled. Yeah, i'm a coward where story stress is concerned, especially existential deep dark stress. I'll check the recap to see if i can safely watch the episodes. Thanks so much.

3
1
reply

Required fields are marked *

Anthology series in general tend to lead and finish with their best pieces, with the middle pieces being... middling. I don't expect episodes 2 and 3 to be as harrowing as the first.

2
reply

Required fields are marked *

Thanks for the review.

This episode was beautifully done.
I liked more the first part, where it conveyed the loneliness of the real people that live in this futuristic world, where everyone seems encapsulated in their own pain without time or energy for the others.
Not sure about the last minutes, but it was a great watching nonetheless.

3
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

This was a great start to what I'm sure will be a an interesting series. I must say that I felt an overwhelming sense of despair while watching this episode. This is not a future that I would like to see myself living in; so sterile, so devoid of beauty.

6
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

I won't be watching this for... hospital-coma related reasons, but it sounds really interesting! I had no idea this project was even happening, and with stars like Lee Yoo-young!

1
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

So it's a Korean version of Black mirror or AHS?

0
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Great review Missvictrix. I agree, it was well made and you really can't stop thinking about the various themes. I never like the robots developing feelings in dramas. The hugging scene and that scene when the people in the gossiping crowd were wishing their robot caregivers would do the same were shocking for me! As was the opposite scenario of the robot in the next room doing absolutely nothing! The last scene was goosebumps inducing good, the actors did really well!

3
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

One especially interesting thing about this piece was how the focus shifted from character to character like a kaleidoscope. You start out thinking one character is the lead, then it shifts to another's point of view, then another. Halfway into the drama you would have never guessed the story's end would be from the point of view of the nun!

I can't think of a scene in recent memory that shocked and creeped me out as much as when the woman and her robot twin started making out in front of her dead mother. Wow. Just wow.

4
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

That scene where the robot has a nervous breakdown and shuts down in front of the open window. When dawn comes a large insect enters the room (moth? butterfly?) and the robot wakes up. It reminded me of the butterfly from Goblin landing on the sword. Now that I think of it, My Mister/Ajusshi had also had a scene with a flying insect disturbing the quiet office space. I had entirely missed the symbolism.

2
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

I wouldn't even know of this project if it weren't for this recap!

I'm such a huge fan of Black Mirror and everything future, tech and dystopian related so this is exactly my cup of tea. Just finished watching the first episode and wow. I've never seen a Korean drama quite like this. Cannot wait for the next episodes!!

0
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Great recap @missvictrix for such a dark, disquieting and enigmatic piece. I'm still trying to work out how I feel about this and about what it's trying to say; under normal circumstances the inclusion of the overt religious overtones would put me off and at some points in this it did.

And yet if you're going to have a true clash between simplistic moral messages like "thou shalt not kill" and "God will fix everything" and "only humans have souls" and the deeply complex and emotionally fraught issues we have around long-term palliative care, chronic pain, family responsibility, and the desire for love and care to be requited, then I guess bringing in the religious element only makes sense.

All I can say at this stage was that I found this powerfully uncomfortable to watch and also that Lee Yoo-young's performance was a powerhouse. I think this is the only pure science fiction that Korea has ever created (happy to be proven wrong on this) and it's a seriously impressive first piece to the anthology. I can only hope the rest are as good.

0
0
reply

Required fields are marked *