Review: MUDANG: RECONCILLIATION BETWEEN THE LIVING AND THE DEAD (Korea, 2003)

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Brian Thibodeau, Jul 14, 2004.

  1. Brian Thibodeau

    Brian Thibodeau Supporting Actor

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    MUDANG: RECONCILLIATION BETWEEN THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
    Director: Park Ki-bok
    Cast: various
    Running Time: 100 min.
    Rating: 12+ (Korean rating)
    Region Code: Marked as 3, but all-region
    Subtitles: English, Korean, Script
    Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
    Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
    Company: Premier Entertainment


    One of the more disturbing film experiences I’ve had this year would be a documentary by Park Ki-bok called MUDANG: RECONCILLIATION BETWEEN THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
    http://us.yesasia.com/en/PrdDept.asp...ection-videos/

    MUDANG is the Korean term for a shaman, essentially a human conduit between the living and the dead, a performer of ritualistic rites to guide the deceased to the othweworld and a very important part of Korea’s cultural landscape, though in truth a practice that is often forgotten, ignored or treated with more cultural than religious significance by a majority of modern Koreans. Viewers of the Korean horror film NIGHTMARE will have noticed a Mudang trying unsuccessfully to rid the world of an evil spirit. A good background on Korean shamanism is probably appropriate before viewing the film; otherwise the uninitated (myself included) will be his hard by equal feelings of fascination and disgust. Here’s a brief overview:
    http://www.sogang.ac.kr/~burns/cult951/shaman.html

    from that site:
    Korean shamans can be roughly divided into two types: possessed, or charismatic shamans and hereditary shamans.

    The former, called NAERIM MUDANG, are typically found in the northern half of the Korean peninsula. After suffering from SINBYONG, an illness which is generally interpreted as a sign of a shamistic calling, a potential NAERIM MUDANG apprentices herself to an established shaman from she acquires the knowledge and skills appropriate to her new occupation. The two Woman establish a 'spirit mother'-'spirit daughter' relationship, the spirit mother later conducting the initiation rite which transforms her apprentice into a full-fledged shaman. In the course of their rites, these shamans not only become possessed and experience ecstatic trance states themselves but may also induce their clients to do the same.

    The hereditary shamans, called TANGOL MUDANG, are found in the southern half of the Korean peninsula. They are recruited not through possession sickness but simply by being born into a shaman's family. Though this type of shaman does not undergo trance possessed and herself, she may cause of a rite.


    Director Park presents this ancient tradition - and its dwindling but resolved practitioners - without prejudice, instead allowing the audience to decide for themselves. Perhaps owing to the fact that I’m neither Korean nor overtly religious, and have in fact come to regard most world followings as extraordinary mass delusions, so I couldn’t help but be frustrated at the sight of these “healers” actually amplifying the grief of those in mourning. Obviously, this is more a criticism of the practise than of the film for depicting it.

    The movie presents a handful of Mudang, but one in particular, a young woman, a charismatic shaman, features in the film’s most troubling scene. In it, a family that allegedly ignores her prophecy that they would experience mourning (for at the time it made no sense to them, nor could it) loses a son soon after in a construction accident. Coincidence? Obviously. But the family is not without its traditional beliefs, so they bring her back for a Chinogwi Kut (a ceremony in which she channels the dead boy on his way to the other side, among other things) that sends everybody into hysterics and the guilt-ridden mother off the deep end. Rarely have I seen something so compelling, so culturally intriguing, so emotionally draining, yet so downright appalling. For not only does she play on their grief, she indulges in precisely - I repeat precisely - the same kind of serene, obviously vague, feel-good belief reinforcement (based on the flimsiest of proofs) that have long been exposed as the tricks of the trade of psychics, mediums and fortunetellers in the west. “I’m not in pain anymore,” “I forgive you,” “Mom, I love you;” these are the kind of generic peace offerings supplied only AFTER the Mudang has driven the mother to a quivering, shaking lump on the floor, childishly wailing and swinging a sheath of sacred flowers back and forth across the floor. Ironically, the viewer won’t suspect for a second that the Mudang doesn’t believe in her own abilities; this woman so strongly believes in the magic that she can’t see the harm she’s doing

    I’ve always been intrigued reading about the rites and rituals of cultures not my own, but sometimes seeing them filmed in an unbiased light is a frighteningly sad experience in our supposedly enlightened times. My admittedly unscholarly research on this particular subject confirms time and again that the Mudang and their practises were - and are - popular with the lower, uneducated classes, and film, in presenting both charismatic and hereditary shamans in two geographically separate but beautifully rural regions of the country, would appear to back up the claim, as what could loosely be termed a, shall we say, agrarian clientele routinely pays hard-earned money for the services of the shamans. In one scene, an elderly lady insists on paying the younger Shaman mentioned above with a near-constant stream of lettuce from her market stall. When the shaman tells her she should instead sell the lettuce and use the money for her sustenance, the lady, in that inimitably Korean method of deference, initiates a back-and-forth round of insistence and hand waving.

    The majority of Mudang presented in the film are elderly, life-long practitioners. Thus, we’re also introduced to two very elderly sisters, both hereditary Mudang if I recall correctly and a couple of endearingly lovable old-maid curmudgeons who form the spiritual core of the movie, particularly after the oldest passes away (after working the fields right up to her death!) and the younger performs a hauntingly beautiful service to send her off. The emotions run high, but the ceremony - involving symbolic paper money and a paper boat to send the spirit on its way - is a haunting reminder of how survivors will likely always be bound by tradition to turn the passing of a loved one into a thing of drama and catharsis.

    One of the film’s more humourous sequences, perhaps unintentionally so, comes in the form of a late-60-something Mudang who channels the spirit of her nagging mother on what is revealed to be a regular basis. The problem is, the “mother” -supposedly speaking through the daughter - conveniently (and nearly exclusively) nags her about what a loser her husband is and how much he makes her work - right in front of the poor guy! A fantastic exercise in avoiding responsibility for one’s own dissatisfaction with life’s choices (although in this case, the marriage was probably arranged by Korean tradition) by inventing a third party to do the bitching is undercut by a bittersweet interview with the husband outside, not long after her latest performace, in which he admits to being bothered by the constant spectral harassment yet confesses that his love for his wife makes it impossible to to anything by stand by her side. One doesn’t have to read to far between his lines to realize the depth of his commitment in the face of his own doubts about her abilities.

    Director Park keeps his camera objective throughout, letting a rich, shamanistic heritage, albeit one teetering on the verge of extinction in the Korean rush toward Christianity and other, more new-agey religions, speak volumes about the people of this unique land. Burned-in vertical explanatory subtitles in Korean augment the sparse narration by actor Sol Kyung-gu (JAILBREAKERS, PUBLIC ENEMY, I WISH I HAD A WIFE). On the DVD, English subtitles for BOTH these Korean subtitles and the onscreen dialogue appear on screen at the same time, top and bottom, which may necessitate pausing from time to time to take in all the information.

    The disc also contains a trailer, some still photos, a terminology (available in English) and a director’s biography.

    Highly recommended to believers and non-believers alike; believers to get insight into one of the thousands of religious practises they too-often brush off in pursuit of their own, and non-believers to see that such rites and rituals can not only potentially be a source of great embarrassment in an age of enlightenment but also a source of great beauty and communal bonding when practised with dignity.

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  2. Tim RH

    Tim RH Second Unit

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    I also have this disc, and I agree that it is an interesting bit of Korean culture...but not for everybody, that's for sure.
     
  3. Brian Thibodeau

    Brian Thibodeau Supporting Actor

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    Thanks for the reply. I was beginning to think I'd wasted my time watching and reviewing it. You're right, Tim, it's bound to leave some people cold, but then again, I liken it to showing non-Christians a movie about the more ritualistic practices of Christianity (baptisms, speaking in tongues, revival meetings, weekly worship in Pentecostal churches, funeral practises), or any other religion they're unfamiliar with for that matter: some are likely to respect it for what it's worth even if they don’t understand it, others are liable to brush it off as incongruous with their own faith, and still others might roll their eyes at mankind’s unceasing ability to whip themselves into a frenzy over a world’s worth of superstitious and supernatural beliefs that, as evidenced by MUDANG, often result in more guilt and suffering than should be allowed over the passing of a loved one. At that, I’d rank MUDANG as a must-see, for it strives, on the surface at least, to simply present these practitioners of a dying religion without prejudice, but does so in a way that can only invite the viewer to attach his or her own prejudices and beliefs to the activities of the people on-screen. One strange feeling I came away with is that as long as there are those who need to know there’s more to life than what evolution has given us, sooner or later, all religions are replaced by newer belief systems - it takes centuries, sometimes dozens of them, but it has been unequivacobly proven to happen. The best that can be said for those systems that are struggling to stay alive in our multi-denominational world is that filmmakers like Park Ki-bok are there to remind us that they ever existed at all; his film may one day be the one of the only moviing visual references Koreans have to a once-vital part of their culture.
     
  4. Tim RH

    Tim RH Second Unit

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    Actually, I was thinking about this when I was watching the film..as you saw, one of the women he interviewed passed on before he even completed the documentary, so the temporary nature of their practice became even more clear...so I am certainly grateful to the filmmaker for his efforts, even if it only serves primarily historical purposes (as the lack of interest in this title suggests, unfortunately).
     
  5. Tim RH

    Tim RH Second Unit

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    I didn't know whether to laugh or cry during those scenes...it was such an odd thing to witness. The thing that made it more disturbing is that I think the woman genuinely, truly believed everything she said and did..although I suppose that could be debated.
     
  6. Brian Thibodeau

    Brian Thibodeau Supporting Actor

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    We now have enough solid scientific and psychological and anthropological data available on a world-wide scale about the human mind, and it's unceasing ability to be conditioned from within and without nearly from birth to prove that you are, in fact, correct in assuming that woman thoroughly believed what she was doing was of a supernatural nature (which it wasn't), and not the product of a mind made resentful by social status, lack of education, and years of what looked to be agrarian labour with a hard-working, stoic Korean man who made little money (which it was). This kind of belief in one's own abilities is a big part of the success these people have of convincing others who use their services. Studies on faith healers and mystics come to mind. Granted, there could very well be Mudangs - as there are ritual performers in all cultures - who are only in it to make a buck and know full well that they're only offering a temporarily soothing balm for hefty markup, and indeed that's criminal, but it's the ones who really believe in their own powers who often do the most damage, both to themselves and others, as evidenced by at least some of the people in MUDANG.

    People prone to fantasy and wishful thinking will have all sorts of wonderful things happen to them that they believe can't be proven by non-believers. Even the woman's husband, in his brief interview segments, seems shaken by her behaviour, even though he's clearly been dealing with it for most of their married life. You can almost taste his skepticism, his sad longing for her to be normal. Her insouciant certainty that her dead mother really is speaking through her is all the more difficult to take in light of her husband's obvious but complicated affection for her.

    My girlfriend, who is Korean, and I both had a good laugh, however, at the prior sequence where she's wobbling around kitchen in "mom-visitation" mode, just denigrating the poor guy in front of another family member and a cameraman. The moments that followed, however, were frustrating and heartbreaking in equal measure.

    Still not sure what to make of the woman who walked on bloody knife blades, drank blood and twisted the head off a live chicken, though. I think she's the same one who work's the bereaving mother into a frenzy in the film, if I recall correctly. Some aspects of shamanism have clearly had their day. Then again, one could say that about the rituals of nearly every belief system out there. We should nonetheless be grateful that someone decided to document this altogether unique, strange and almost forgotten aspect of the Korean culture.
     

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