South Korean animation feature film “The Shaman Sorceress” does not seem to be confident about its story and characters. While it works to some degree as a harrowing melodramatic fable of cultural clash, the movie, which is based on the acclaimed 1936 Korean short story written by Kim Dong-lee, often falters due to its several weak musical interludes which are rather distracting instead of enhancing the story and characters, and, as a guy who still remembers well Kim’s short story, I think the people behind the film should have gone all the way without softening the story and characters at all.
At first, the male narrator of the film tells us a bit about how his family happened to acquire one gorgeous picture around the early 20th century. Although his family was not wealthy as they were once a long time ago, his grandfather kept buying pictures and other artworks as usual even while selling most of what he bought in the past, and that picture in question was drawn by the young mute daughter of a wandering merchant who happened to drop by his grandfather’s house on one day.
According to his grandfather, the picture was inspired by that young mute lady’s mother who was a shaman sorceress. Since she was very young, Mo-hwa (voiced by Sonya) had practiced shamanism, and the early part of the movie succinctly shows us how she works to earn her living day by day in a rural village where she settled many years ago. Whenever someone in the village becomes sick mentally or physically, villagers always go for Mo-hwa’s help, and she willingly provides them her spiritual ritual and then gets paid well later along with her assisting colleagues.
However, regardless of whether her spiritual service is really effective or not, Mo-hwa recently seems to pass her peak period, and there is a little disturbing moment where she gets a bit paranoid while getting quite drunk not long after her latest spiritual ritual. Because there is no other option for her to earn money besides performing those rituals, she cannot help but feel more desperate, and her mute daughter Nang-yi is helplessly watching Mo-haw’s increasingly unstable status.
And then there comes an unexpected big change into their life. Before having Nang-yi, Mo-hwa also had a son, and, as he grews up to be a smart and promising boy, she decided to send him to a temple for his life, but, alas, that led to a result not so welcomed by her at all for a good reason. After growing up more during next several years, Wook-yi (voiced by Kim Da-hyun) decided to leave the temple and then went to Seoul, and that is where he got himself converted to Christianity shortly after his encounter with a Christian minister (This foreign supporting character is incidentally voiced by critic Darcy Pacquet, who, as some of you already know, supervised the English subtitle for Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019)).
Before preparing to go to US along with that minister, Wook-yi decides to visit his hometown, and he is certainly delighted to see his mother and half-sister again, but it does not take much time for him and Mo-haw to conflict a lot with each other due to their respective religions. As Wook-yi firmly sticks to his religious faith, Mo-hwa often becomes hostile to her son, and this domestic conflict only gets worse when Wook-yi decides to spread his god’s words around those villagers. In Mo-hwa’s viewpoint, Jesus is simply a foreign deity invading her territory, and she cannot help but become more fanatic about chasing away Jesus from her dear son, especially when many of villagers are gradually drawn more to Christianity.
Around that point, we are supposed to have more empathy on Mo-hwa’s dwindling position, but the film often hesitates to empathize with her growing desperation, and it only comes to go back and forth between her and her son without generating much human depth for both of them. As a result, Mo-hwa often feels merely shrill while getting madder and madder as required by the plot, and his son is not an effective counterpart at all as often blandly throwing the quotes from the Bible.
At many of its key points, the film attempts to compensate for its weak storytelling via a series of musical moments, but, to my disappointment, these musical moments are not that good in many aspects. As the music is performed too loudly on the soundtrack more than once, I hardly got the lyrics during my viewing, and I consequently came to observe the expected moment of emotional devastation from the distance without much emotional involvement.
Anyway, the film is a nice treat in visual aspects at least. Although it is apparent to us from the beginning that its production budget was not that big to say the least, the cell animation of the film are drawn well with lots of care and efforts, and I especially like how the movie utilizes bold primary colors for dramatic effects during the climactic sequence where Mo-hwa comes to lose herself completely before reaching to a devastating outcome.
“The Shaman Sorceress” is directed by Ahn Jae-huun, who has been known for directing several modest animation film adaptations of notable Korean literature works including Hyun Jin-geon’s 1924 short story “A Lucky Day”. Although I did not enjoy the film enough, he is a competent animation filmmaker as far as I can see from it, and I hope his next work will be better in addition to being more than a supplement material for your average Korean literature course.