SF8, Episode 1 – “The Prayer” (South Korea, 2020)

Science Fiction is often considered a decidedly American invention. However untrue this statement may be, the cinematic representation of SF has, for most of its history, been dominated by American productions. On the small screen, shows like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, and The Expanse, to name a few, have set a remarkable standard of what is considered good SF television. The mould was somewhat broken by the emergence of Black Mirror, a brilliant UK-based SF show that examines the horrendous consequences of technology in modern society. Though Black Mirror follows more-or-less the formula established by the Twilight Zone, its clever science fictional ideas, sharp social criticism, and impressive production values have made it into one of the most poignant television shows of the 21st century.

Following on the same footstep, South Korean director Min Kyu-dong is trying to emulate the same formula by creating a Korean alternative to the British SF anthology series, entitled SF8. The motivation behind SF8 was to allow for the production of quality science fiction “with a message,” at achievable budgets for Korean cinema. The first episode of the series, “The Prayer” hits precisely on those notes, even if it mimics its British predecessor a tad too closely.

The first episode of the series revolves around Yeun Jeong-in (Lee Yoo-young), who has purchased a robotic nurse (also played by Lee) to take care of her brain-dead mother. Having spent the last 10 years worrying about her mother, Jeong-in has neglected her own personal life and well-being. She is in a state of severe depression and contemplates suicide. Her robot grows concerned about Jeong-in. After some analysis and a fleeting conversation with a local nun (Ye Soo-jung), the robot concludes that it can only keep one of its clients alive, either Jeong-in or her mother – not both. If Jeong-in is to keep living, she must be rid of her mother’s burden. This decision, while logical from the robot’s point of view, has grave repercussions for Jeong-in, as well as the future of robot technology everywhere.

“The Prayer” does not offer anything new in the area of science fiction, though it handles the material with great competence. From a technical point of view, the robot’s actions are easy to comprehend and well outlined in the episode. Lacking human moral values, it could only apply a sort of utilitarian calculus, the conclusion of which was to save Jeong-in’s life at the cost of her mother’s. The stakes are significantly lowered by the fact that the mother’s condition is terminal, and that she’ll likely never wake up. Not a Sophie’s choice, exactly, though the characterization of Jeong-in is effective enough that it adds proper gravitas to the episode’s dilemma. Kang Gook-hyun’s cinematography and Kim Geu-na’s colorless production design also go a long way into giving the episode an appropriate bleak mood that perfectly mirrors its subject matter. All in all, “The Prayer” is an excellent piece of short-form science fiction.

There’s one small issue, however. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to bring east and south Asian SF literature to English-speaking readers (the SF magazine Clarkesworld in particular has done a terrific job in translating new Korean and Chinese science fiction writers). While these works have a lot in common with western science fiction, they also carry a part of their national identity that sets them apart, an element of diversity that makes them all the more valuable to western audiences.This element is sadly missing from the first episode of SF8. If one replaces the Korean actors with British or American ones, the episode could have very well been part of Black Mirror. In many ways that’s a compliment, but I also wish that there was something a little more distinctly “Korean” about the episode. Even so, the first episode of SF8 points to a highly promising series.