Korean people and their vital vehicle for living and surviving, the Korean family, have been integrated into social space and historical experience through several major systems of thought and practice. The best known is Neo-Confucianism. With its hierarchies, ancestor worship and insistent patriarchal structure, it deeply shaped traditional Korean culture. It makes itself felt, for better or worse, still today. In contrast to the Confucian view of family, Buddhism often viewed the family as a ‘house on fire’, a tangle of emotional bonds that doomed an individual to an endless cycle of suffering and rebirth. Rejecting the world of the family for that of the monastery was a possible first step to salvation. Yet Buddhism always contributed to the life of families, providing prayers for the sick in body or soul, and ceremonies for the dead.
Shamanism represents a kind of underground river of belief and ritual action that seems to have existed far back in history, one which still flows on today, however small the tributaries have become. Most mudang (Korea’s traditional Shaman, or manshin, dangol to mention a few other familiar terms) were, still are, women and most of their clients the wives/mothers/daughters whose sphere of duties include the welfare of the household in this world and the next. Mudang and client may work together to appease troubled spirits of the departed, those who died too young or struck down by accident, lost far from home or on the seas; more prosaically, they may help assess career prospects or the cause of a nagging illness.
We have chosen three films from the late-1970s/early 1980s to illustrate how not so long ago Korean cinema represented shamanism. All three take the role of the mudang seriously, but do so in a largely melodramatic fashion. Two were directed by Im Kwon-taek, all were filmed by Jung Il-sung, celebrated at the last Busan Film Festival as the nation’s greatest cinematographer.
Just as in Korea people may even now call upon the consoling presence and healing rituals of a variety of shaman practitioners, it is also true for cinema that the uncanny world of the mudang maintains its hold on artistic creativity. In 2010 Park Chan-wook teamed up with his brother Chan-kyong to make the haunting short film Night Fishing. Media made much of the fact that the film had been shot using iPhone technology. However, at the heart of the film lies a mudang ceremony of summoning, consoling and dismissing of a spirit trapped between the world of the living and that of the dead, one which could not be more Korean low-tech traditional.
Mark Morris (Film Academic; Programmer, London Korean Film Festival)