Editor’s note: This film is now no longer part of the Ann Arbor Korean Film Festival. For updated schedule, see http://www.ii.umich.edu/ncks/eventsprograms/filmscreenings.
An interviewee in the documentary Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits describes Korean shamanism as “mysterious and solemn, yet very mischievous.” Those words also describe one of the religion’s most celebrated practitioners and Manshin’s subject, the South Korean shaman Keum-hwa Kim. Taking its title from a respectful Korean term for a shaman, the film documents and dramatizes the eighty-three-year-old Kim’s career as a spiritual leader. Blending archival footage, interviews, and lengthy reenactments of Kim’s tumultuous life, director Chan-kyong Park crafts an unconventional documentary that mirrors its subject’s sly wisdom.
Korean shamans act as communicators with the gods and the spirit world, usually through a complex ritual known as a gut. Though their practice predates both Buddhism and Confucianism in Korea, its history has been troubled. Kim makes an excellent case study of some of the most recent challenges to the religion; she faced persecution during the Korean War and again during the “anti-superstition movement” initiated by South Korean president Park Chung-hee in the Seventies. Today, however, it seems Kim has been vindicated; she became a sought-after talk show guest in the Nineties and is now widely recognized as her country’s premier shaman.
Watching Kim in Manshin, it’s easy to see why. She’s a passionate political leader, seen in the film advocating for large national issues, like unity between North and South Korea, and more specific ones, like the preservation of the annual baeyeonsingut ritual held on behalf of fishermen. In her performance of this gut and others shown in detail in the film, Kim is a mesmerizing presence. Dressed in a riot of color, she sings, dances, chants, and performs the roles of various characters in a highly animated fashion. The guts can be emotional, but again there’s that mischievous element. In one gut she creates a comically lecherous male character, complete with mimed erection. Though she’s called upon for many a serious service, her devotees are almost as often seen cracking broad smiles as they are sitting in awed silence or even weeping.
Despite Kim’s age, she also possesses an astute awareness of the power of her presence on film. One interviewee in Manshin notes that it’s difficult to say whether the media have taken advantage of Kim or the other way around. She gives interviews on TV (and in the film) with a sense of great composure yet is also seen playing energetically to her followers’ cameras in a gut. Director Park captures Kim’s spirit with an appropriately complex narrative, using three different actresses to portray her over the years as she narrates dramatizations of key stories from her life. Park, the lesser-known brother of Oldboy director Chan-wook Park, shares his sibling’s eye for arresting visuals, and he edits the film with an ethereal energy that fascinatingly blurs the line between historical fact and the stories we tell through religion. In Manshin’s bold and memorable final scene, Park offers his own compelling answer to the question of who is manipulating whom in Kim’s relationship with the camera. Park seems happy to let Kim pull the strings in this show, but his cinematic voice is also strong enough to make Manshin an engrossing dialogue between two skilled cultural artists.