[the quick and the dead]

Topic: Korea

Last night at the Korea Society, I had the opportunity to see Mudang: Reconciliation Between the Living and the Dead, Park Ki-bok’s recent documentary about shamans in contemporary Korea. The film focuses on several shamans, all women, distinguishing between the “hereditary shamans,” who are born to the practice and learn the art from their mothers, and “spiritual shamans,” who become shamans when they are possessed by spirits and work largely from instinct.

There are three stories intertwined. One follows two elderly sisters in a poor southern province as one passes away and the other performs a gut (굿), or ritual, to usher her into the next world. Another explores the life of a spiritual shaman, also a poor farmer, who is regularly possessed by her own mother, who then scolds the woman’s husband mercilessly. In both these stories, we get to see what rural Korean villages have become. They are old-age homes, poor and drab, with all the young people gone to the city, while only the elderly continue to work at hard labor in the fields or attend to the fishing fleets. (No children appear at all for much of the film.) And in both stories, the old women make it clear that being a shaman has been a curse — something that has marked them as different and cost them normal lives — which is why they chose not to pass it on to their children.

The shortest story, but also the climax of the film, is set in the Seoul region, where hereditary shamans are almost nonexistent. Here at last we meet younger people, including a beautiful young shaman who can’t be much older than 40. When one of her client families is having troubles, she performs the dangerous ritual of dancing on a blade, during which she cries out that the family will soon experience mourning. They dismiss the prophecy, but one month later, their eldest son is killed in a construction accident. He was 22.

What follows is the funerary gut, a wrenching, impassioned ritual in which the shaman is possessed by the spirit of the dead son. Weeping, he tells his family how lucky they are to be alive, how much he still wanted to do in life, how sad he is to leave them and enter the ground. His mother, holding onto the spirit stick that conducts the spiritual energy of the ritual, goes wild with grief, flailing and screaming on the floor. The boy’s younger sisters and younger brother are weeping as well, terrified for their mother and tormented by their grief.

But gradually the scene turns. The dead son tells his mother to be strong. He says he will be joining his dead father soon, and that they should place his portrait with his father’s on the 49th day of his death. He tells his younger brother, “Be careful. Beware of fire and water. I believe in you.” And he tells his mother, “All you ever wanted was to give me a hot meal and care for me.” Then he tells her to be strong.

The ritual culminates with the stretching of a long, thin white sheet across the room, on which paper money and a paper construction symbolizing the soul of the dead are guided along the path to the next world. (The money is for travel expenses on the way, though I assume it’s also for the shaman.)

The cathartic power of such a ritual is obvious. Though intensely painful, it provides an opportunity for the family to grieve with the deceased, and for the deceased to give final messages and instructions to the living. It is also an opportunity for the dead to express their han (), which is translated as “bitterness,” but has a more complex meaning encompassing all the repressed resentments and feelings of unfairness and oppression that accumulate over a lifetime. This again can be extremely painful for the mourners, but it also means that no matter how suddenly the deceased may have passed on, there is still a chance to apologize to them for all the little wrongs, to reconcile with them.

Another striking aspect of the film was the way it revealed Koreans as the bluntest people on earth — at least to those people with whom they feel close. It’s a common observation that Koreans, upon seeing your bad haircut or your giant pimple, will point at the hideous thing and ask you about it. To foreigners, this seems unaccountably rude, but it’s actually an expression of friendship: you’re now close enough that you can speak the truth to each other. There is a lovely, sad scene of the two old shaman sisters, one of them partially paralyzed and limited in her speech by a stroke, sitting on their front porch, smoking cigarettes. “What’s happened to you?” the younger one (only in her early eighties) asks her older sister. “You’re an old woman! You used to sleep better than me. You used to have more energy than me. Now you’re old!” To us, that kind of honesty seems brutal, but among Koreans, it seems to be an expression of love.