South Korean documentary “Manshin” vividly presents the cultural value in Korean shamanic rituals through its haunting images which lingered on my mind for a long time after watching it. Looking around the long, dramatic life story of a woman who has persistently adhered to her ‘destiny’ and craft, the documentary beautifully dances around archival footage, interviews, and recreated personal moments, and its gorgeous dance ultimately comes to us as a vivid, uncanny incantation to draw us into the folk tradition worthwhile to observe and value.
Its subject is an 82-year-old shaman named Kim Geum-hwa, who was officially recognized as a national treasure after enduring so much oppression upon her and her craft for many years. Born in 1931 in a small town of Hwanghea-do area which now belongs to North Korea, she was destined to become an outsider even when she was very young. Besides being an unwelcomed child right from her birth, she already began to experience ‘Shinnae-rim’, or ‘possession’, during her childhood years, and that certainly made her look like a freak to other kids and their parents. Not long after running away from the abusive marriage during her adolescent years, she followed the footsteps of her maternal grandmother who was a prominent shaman, and the movie gives us the recreated scene of her admission test ritual which her grandmother presides over with strict solemnity.
Mainly because there is virtually no footage or record from that period, the documentary, which is based on Kim Guem-hwa’s published memoir, mainly depends on the recreated/imagined scenes to depict her early years. Three well-known South Korean actresses(Kim Sae-ron, Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong, and Moon So-ri) respectively play Kim Guem-hwa in different ages, and their good performances in the documentary are naturally mixed together to give us the whole portrait of its human subject. At one point, Kim Geum-hwa herself looks at one of the important moments in her life being recreated right in front of her, and this oddly compelling juxtaposition of past and present, or fiction and reality, feels sad and poignant even though she just watches her younger self without saying any word.
Her grandmother(played by Baek Soo-ryeon in the recreated scenes), who was revered as ‘Manshin’(it means a shaman with ten thousand spirits), never wanted her granddaughter to follow her footsteps because her granddaughter would inevitably lead a life of many ill-treatments just like she did. Although class distinction was almost gone in Korea around the 20th century, shamans were remained in low social status while still being disregarded by others, and they were also shunned and oppressed by authorities as the Korean society going through modernization.
Not long after Kim Geum-hwa started her career as a new Manshin, the Korean War broke out in 1950, and things became pretty rough for her as well as others. While losing her grandmother and directly witnessing the horror of the war, she had to go through many risky moments as targeted or used by both sides. We hear from her about how she narrowly escaped from death in front of muzzles aimed at her, and we also get a symbolic scene featuring her younger self stuck in the middle between a North Korean soldier and a South Korean soldier played by the same actor.
She managed to survive through the war, and she safely went to South Korea after leaving behind her hometown, but there were more hardships even after the war was over. Shamanism was still regarded as superstition to be expelled, and that tendency became harsher especially during the 1970s when the South Korean government was determined to modernize everything in rural areas. She could have been arrested by the police for doing her rituals, and she was also mistreated by Protestants who mostly regarded her and other shamans as demonic influence. During one amusing scene, she and her co-workers are ‘ambushed’ by hymn-singing Protestants, and, not so surprisingly, there comes that familiar silly phrase I heard from many South Korean Protestants who sometimes look like third-rated Christian shamans: “Satan, go away~”
We also meet her family including her niece, her stepson, and her second husband, who had to be divorced from her because of an understandable reason. He had no problem with living with her, but, as her stepson also points out, being shaman’s family was a social stigma he could not hide, and he tells us about how it was not so good for his business during that time. When he later meets his ex-wife again after long years of separation, there is no hard feeling between them, and it is touching to see them warmly talking about their shared past as two people at the end of their respectively lives.
In the end, Kim Geum-hwa and her tradition survive intact with the happy ending for both of them. As the interest in folklore was increased during the 1980s, she found herself valued and respected as a performance artist in public, and we see her dramatic comeback process through a bulk of TV clips and other various video clips, which triumphantly culminate into one dizzy, elevating sequence to behold. Although she is over 80 now, this old lady still looks spirited in her colorful spiritual performances for ghosts and spirits, and it is not so easy to reject the excitement inside them even if you do not believe that she is possessed as she claims(As a biology major, I think her mental state is just a lot more sensitive and receptive than ours to neuronal stimuli).
The director Park Chan-kyong did a terrific job of making his documentary both informative and beautiful as melding different elements together into a wholly mesmerizing experience you should not miss at any chance. I remained skeptical about all those spiritual things at the end of the film, but I observed it with full curiosity throughout its running time, and I was also touched by many sublime moments including its memorable finale scene, which ends with a quote suggesting that movies are actually not that different from those shamanic rituals summoning spirits. After all, when we watch movies, we are sort of conjuring up the spirits inside them, aren’t we?
Seems quite fascinating…
SC: I hope it will find audiences outside South Korea.
Reminds me of Cobra Verde which was a fascinating anthropological look at African rituals and dances……..
SC: I have not watched that film yet, by the way.
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