What is it that makes Park Chan-kyong’s biopic of Korea’s national shaman so compelling on so many levels?
Right from the start, the narrative grips you. We meet Kim Geum-hwa, the subject of the movie, praying for the success of the film. She also prays for the health of the film crew, and asks the spirits to protect the viewers on their journey home. When was the last time you were prayed for by the subject of a film?
Even without such a direct connection being made between you the viewer and the subject of the film, there is plenty to keep you involved. For this is a history of twentieth century Korea, told through the experiences of a shaman. Shamans have for much of Korean history been on the margins of society, and this has certainly been the experience of Kim Geum-hwa. Born in 1931 in Hwanghae Province, she was ostracised as a young girl for telling people’s fortunes, beaten by her mother-in-law for not focusing on the housework1, lived in fear of soldiers from both North and South during the Korean War, and was persecuted by evangelical Christians and by “modernising” forces of Park Chung-hee’s Saemaeul Movement, until Kim could eventually emerge as the nation’s leading shaman.
One interesting point which the film makes is that the “rehabilitation” of shamanism started to occur under Chun Doo-hwan, who wanted to show his difference from Park Chung-hee by reversing at least one of his policies. An early sign of this was the holding of a large-scale cultural festival, National Wind 1981, in Yeouido Plaza early in his administration, in which the folk traditions that had been repressed during the Samaeul Movement were presented in a large spectacle. Kim Geum-hwa was subsequently appointed holder of intangible cultural asset #82 (Seohaean Baeyeonsin-gut and Daedong-gut — Fishing Rituals of Western Coastal Region) in 1985.
Through the film, Park Chan-Kyong tries to “undo” the prejudice which has faced Kim Geum-hwa throughout her earlier career, before she became something of a media celebrity, acting as an ambassador for shamanism on the TV screens, using the TV cameras as she might use gongs or other shamanistic paraphernalia.
Kim’s story is told in many overlapping ways. First, key events in her life are told by way of dramatic reconstruction, with Kim played by three different actresses: Kim Sae-ron plays her as a young girl; Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong takes over for the initiation ritual and the 1950s; and Moon So-ri plays her during the 1970s. By the time the 1980s arrived, Kim herself was appearing on TV shows and thus “plays” herself. This is the second way the story is told – archive footage of Kim appearing on TV or conducting various rituals. Thirdly, Kim talks to camera about her life, or we see her reminiscing with her second ex-husband about her past life. Finally, there is fly-on-the-wall footage in which Park Chan-kyong’s cameras follow Kim as she prepares for the Baeyeonsin-gut and other rituals. What is not certain is the extent to which the live footage of the modern Kim Geum-hwa is staged specifically for the documentary, perhaps re-staging real events, and how much is genuinely simply the recording of things as they happen.
It was fortunate that during the three-year period that Park Chan-kyong was shooting the documentary Kim Geum-hwa was able to perform the first Baeyeonsin-gut since the sinking of the Cheonan (the sinking, like the gut, took place in the disputed waters near the Northern Limit Line). During this important scene, footage shot by the documentary film crew seems to be intercut with footage taken by other witnesses such as TV coverage, which almost makes one wonder if the scene was filmed on two different occasions.
In an interview with Darcy Paquet2, Park says he tries to make a clear distinction between what is actual documentary footage and what has been reconstructed specifically for the film. But he deliberately transgresses this boundary between real and reenactment on several occasions, with interesting consequences. We see the actress Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong being driven in a modern car to a seaside location to reenact a perilous sea journey the shaman undertook in the 1950s; we see an 80-year-old Kim Geum-hwa look on as an actress playing her grandmother (also a renowned shaman) laments over Ryoo Hyeong-kyeong for her inescapable calling to be a shaman; Ryoo wanders in the border area in the 1950s looks down on her future self performing the Jinogui-gut in 2012 Paju; and finally as Moon So-ri applies make-up in preparation for a gut, her face in the mirror becomes the modern, 80-something Kim Geum-hwa applying lipstick. In many ways the reconstruction of events from Kim’s past using contemporary actresses is eerily effective in evoking the blurred sense of time of the spirit world that the shaman inhabits, and the immediate connections that can be made by the shaman with the spirits of the past. The culmination of this device occurs in the final scene, which is an extraordinary concertinaing of Kim’s life. A camera follows the young actress playing Kim as a girl, as she collects scrap metal from villagers. Suddenly you become more aware of the camera as, instead of following the girl through the streets, it lifts up and flies over the cottages, capturing in its frame the film crew still in the streets below. Then the young Kim is joined by the other actresses who play the shaman at different stages in her life, and finally Kim Geum-hwa herself joins the scene as the camera floats up into the sky, and we momentarily see a shadow of the camera on the roof of one of the cottages. The scene disappears into the distance, perhaps in part signifying the integration of the shaman’s beliefs with the countryside, while the simultaneous appearance of all the shaman’s incarnations seems to hint at the spirit-possession that is key to shaman rituals.
The film itself is structured around several ceremonies: first comes Kim’s own Naerim-gut (initiation ritual) when she received the spirits in 1948; then a healing ritual for a South Korean soldier conducted during the war; a Reunification ritual in 1998 performed near Paju; a long-life gut from Hwanghae province that she performed in Gyeonggi-do in 1997; a Jinogui-gut to console the souls of the North Korean and Chinese dead at Paju in 2012, and finally the Baeyeonsin-gut, a ritual to pray for a bountiful catch of fish, also in 2012.
The 1998 Reunification ritual brings forth one of the most startling incidents in the film. The gut is hosted by author Hwang Sok-yong, who had just been released from prison, his crime being that he visited North Korea without permission. While he was in the DPRK, he met Kim Il-sung several times as the North Korean leader was an admirer of his serial novel Jang Gilsan. Mid-way through the reunification ritual the shaman runs up to the barbed wire which divides North from South, and seems to be possessed by the spirit of Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. Surrounded by cameras, her voice and posture take on a striking likeness to the dictator, as confirmed by the novelist who met him 22 times.
In its portrayal of the shamanistic ceremonies, the documentary is sets out both the aspects which are meant as entertainment (for the spirits and for the assembled company) and those where something mysterious is happening, as when the shaman seems to become possessed by a spirit. No judgement is made as to whether the possession is “real”, though Hwang Sok-yong certainly seems struck by the authenticity of her “possession” by Kim Il-sung. The film also starts to ask the questions about whether a shamanistic ritual brought into a theatre as a public performance can be considered to be in any way authentic, but a proper examination of such a question is outside the scope of the documentary.
In the question and answer session that followed the screening of Manshin at the London Korean Film Festival 2014, Park spoke a little about his motivations for making the documentary. His art practice has always focused on those on the margins who have been “left out” of history. Having read Kim Geun-hwa’s autobiography (titled 비단꽃 넘세) he realised that shamans have always been on the margins, and he felt inspired to recreate the biography, which was a history of modern Korea through the eyes of a shaman. He pointed out one of the ironies of the persecution of shamans by evangelical Christians in the 1970s, suggesting that Korean Christianity has itself absorbed elements of shamanist practice – for example praying at dawn up in the mountains, and rubbing the hands together when praying.
In his film, Park tried to stay faithful to the autobiography, but confessed to one piece of artistic licence: the white shoe that is found in the water and which links scenes in each phase of the shaman’s life. This recurring theme however is not out of place in a narrative which alternates between the linear and circular, and which ends in such a satisfying way by bringing together in one scene all of Kim Geum-hwa’s different incarnations. Manshin is a movie which succeeds not only as a factual documentary but also as a meditation on the spirit world and as a thought-provoking work of art.
- Kim Geum-hwa was married at the age of 14 to avoid being taken off to be a comfort woman. The marriage only lasted three years, before Kim ran back to her own family.
- Koreana, Autumn 2014 pp30-35.