The death of a grandmother in remote, rural Jindo becomes dramatically intertwined with a stage performance by dancers, court and folk musicians from the National Gugak Centre as they portray the journey of a soul in the afterlife. The unauthorised purchase of a Jindo puppy by her two grandchildren gets them entangled in the drama too.
The principal characters in the stage performance are four kkokdu: the colourful wooden dolls attached to the deceased’s funeral bier that signify the guardian spirits who will conduct the spirit as she starts her journey into the next life. The spirits in this stage particular performance are newbies. It’s the first soul they will have guided, and their bosses have promised them an easy job: an elderly person who has died of natural causes, and not someone who has died before their time. But somehow they end up with the two grandchildren who arrive in the underworld slightly disoriented.
The film intercuts between the children’s and grandmother’s life in the rich, green scenery of Jindo, and the stage performance of the colourful kkokdu with supporting dancers and musicians. What’s not to like? The whole thing looks and sounds gorgeous. Meanwhile the story itself is simple and touching, with enough humour coming from the novice guardian angels on stage to balance the seriousness of the family drama back in Jindo. The production is a thoroughly engaging introduction to aspects of Korean folklore, as well as a showcase for the National Gugak Centre’s talents presented in easily digestible and contrasting titbits.
The older grandchild is played by Kim Suan, the star of Sprout, Yoon Ga-eun’s charming short movie (Hangul Celluloid review here), while the lead kkokdu is played by Cho Hee-bong, who is the larger-than-life byeonsa / narrator in Kim Tae-yong’s live screenings of the 1936 classic Crossroads of Youth. Two more engaging lead characters it’s hard to imagine, and my only complaint is that I could have done with it lasting another 10 minutes or so. The pacing is just right, but the whole thing is so lovely that you just want more of it.
Kim Tae-yong’s Kokdu: a story of guardian angels screened on 16 September 2019 at Regent Street Cinema as the final teaser for the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.
Kim Tae-yong (김태용) Kokdu: a story of guardian angels (꼭두 이야기, 2018)