National Shaman Kim Keum-hwa doesn't engage in parlor tricks that provide easy, obvious, indisputable proof of her abilities. In her very long life, this had led to quite a bit of conflict. Kim Keum-hwa's life has run parallel with that of Korea's modernization, first under Japanese occupation, and then under various Korean dictatorships. None of them have taken this woman particularly seriously, and her mere presence is often enough to provoke violent outbursts from local authorities.
Something I never get about these modern types, the ones who swear adamantly that this is all mere witchcraft and has no place in modern society, is that if these rituals are just nonsense, why do they care whether it happens or not? Why is this conformity so important to a world of modern ideals? Kim Keum-hwa...never sees much of a point in trying to answer this question, or get involved in arguments of any kind. Maybe that's why people get so mad at her.
This documentary is, for better or worse, her story told as she wants it. So the tale is often an extremely alien one- there's a heavy emphasis on the traditional rituals, many of which are portrayed in full here on-screen. Where political conflicts come up in Kim Keum-hwa's life, they're typically only for the sake of suppressing one of these rituals.
"Mansin: Ten Thousand Spirits" simply doesn't dwell much on how this woman has made her livelihood in the modern world. Kim Keum-hwa is an unusually public figure- she's commonly known as Korea's National Shaman and has scores of apprentices, many of whom hail from countries on the opposite side of the planet. Kim Keum-hwa seems willing to answer nearly every request anyone makes for information, whether it be about her personal life or the spirit realm.
It makes for a documentary that requires quite a bit of patience from the viewer. Just as the spirit life is wholly alien and divorced from any sense of reality as we in the modern world know it, so too does the structure of "Mansin: Ten Thousand Spirits" defy that sense of coherence. Events are mostly portrayed in chronological order, but the logical relation of these scenes in relation to one another are often difficult to grasp. The story of being a traditional Korean spirit medium is more a story of a consistent state of mind than a traditional narrative where people actually learn stuff.
For the uninitiated viewer there's plenty of information about traditional Korean spiritual rituals. But be warned- this isn't stuff that's dumbed down for benefit of the layman. We literally see these rituals as they happen, from the same disconnected, unknowing state as the common people who unironically ask for Kim Keum-hwa's help. Oftentimes what we watch looks less like an exorcism than an extremely elaborate party or initiation ceremony. And that's the closest I can get to describing this film in relatable terms. Being able to enjoy "Mansin: Ten Thousand Spirits" requires, on an essential level, that your personal sense of rational modern logic take a break and just accept the spirit medium life on its own terms.
This review was written by William Schwartz as a part of HanCinema's DMZDocs (DMZ Korean International Documentary Film Festival) coverage.
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Mansin: Ten Thousand Spirits""
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