Eul-hwa (乙火 / 을화, Byun Jang-ho, 1979)

Changing times and karmic retribution conspire against a venal shamaness in Byun Jang-ho’s expressionist take on the often adapted story by conservative writer Kim Dong-ni, Eul-hwa (乙火 / 을화). Finding Korea at a moment of transition, Byun’s adaptation is a tale of tradition vs modernity, indigenous religion vs Western Christianity, nature vs civilisation, and the young vs the old, but it’s also an old-fashioned morality tale in which the sins of greed and arrogance can never be forgiven because there can be no peace or happiness for those who seek to prosper through betrayal. 

During an intense storm, Ok-sun (Kim Ji-mee) is woken by an order from a dream instructing her to dig up the cairn outside her home to free a trapped spirit. Fearful as her young son Young-sul is ill, Ok-sun dutifully does what she’s told and discovers a chest containing what appear to be the instruments of a shaman. Leaving Young-sul alone for the moment, she seeks advice from the local shamaness, Mother Pak-ji (Jeong Ae-ran), who reveals that a well known shaman once lived in her home and that she has been selected by the Holy Mother of Sun-do Mountain to serve her as a shamaness. Though some might find this an imposition at best, Ok-sun is not unwilling but is unable to afford the money involved to mount an initiation ceremony. Luckily, Mother Pak-ji agrees to help, taking her on as a pupil and renaming her “Eul-hwa” after the house in which she lives. Young-sul recovers, and Eul-hwa is fully converted to the life of a “mudang”. 

Eul-hwa is less reluctant than some might be to become a shamaness because she is in a sense already an outcast as the unmarried mother to an illegitimate son, forced out of her home village and living in a small, rundown home on the outskirts of a neighbouring settlement where she struggles to support herself and her child. As someone with supernatural powers she earns herself a degree of freedom otherwise rare as a lone woman from an ordinary family, able to earn good money and in fact be fairly wealthy while maintaining her independence even if that independence might come at a price as it may have done for Mother Pak-ji who remains single and is now in a vulnerable position as she enters old age alone with only her fellow shamans for support.  

As Eul-hwa explains to Bang-dol (Baek Il-seob), a male shaman musician who will later become her husband, she once chose to become the second wife of a wealthy man, perhaps the only means available to her feed her young son and though not unhappy with the arrangement chose independence rather than to stay with his family once he died. In one sense she retains the upper hand in her marriage as the star draw and higher earner, but is also manipulated by her husband towards the taboo transgression of betraying her mentor Mother Pak-ji through the very modern crime of stealing all her business and destroying her ability to support herself. Having become a talented shamaness drunk on her own sense of power and success she becomes cold to those who have been good to her when she was otherwise rejected, cruelly refusing Mother Pak-ji’s pleas to consider her position and thereafter earning her enmity. 

The female solidarity which had enabled the two women to prosper together has been corrupted by male greed, Bang-dol’s ambition mediated through his wife as he convinces her to betray her own “mother” without ever considering that she too may one day be betrayed. In this way it is Mother Pak-ji’s “curse” that overshadows her life and success, but Eul-hwa also finds herself a victim of changing times as modernity begins to encroach on the village. A passing Buddhist monk issues a prophecy to the effect that Young-sul will become a great man, but only if he is not raised by his mother in whose care he will otherwise die. Eul-hwa makes a maternal sacrifice and sends her son away to be educated at the temple, intending to train her daughter Wol-hee to become a “great shaman” though she is mute, only to see him return a decade later having converted to Christianity in the city. “The Jesus demon” is an existential threat to the mudang, one she’s so far managed to mediate by performing exorcisms outside the newly erected church that have convinced most of the villagers to stay away. 

The tragedy is that mother and son are intent on “saving” each other from their respective “demons”, Young-sul now convinced his mother is at the mercy of false idols while she believes him possessed by an evil spirit of the West. As representatives of past and future they cannot co-exist and are incapable of accepting that they each hold differing beliefs. Yet even aside from the church we can see modernity already encroaching on the village, uniformed police officers arriving to make an arrest, representatives of an urban authority dressed much like Young-sul in his Westernised student uniform complete with cap and cape. The mudang’s days are numbered, even if she were not about to face the same fate as Mother Pak-ji in being betrayed by her child. 

Cutting to the rhythms of ritual, Byun conjures an atmosphere of fatalistic dread from the expressionist opening with its crashing waves and flashes of lightning to the repeated fire motifs which foreshadow the famous ending and the ominous sound of gloomy church bells clashing with the angry cries of birds. In the clash of cultures, however, modernity will always triumph in the end leaving the present alone to wander in the wreckage of a world consumed by violent conflagration. 


Eul-hwa streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Kim Jong-jin, 2007)

Underground Rendezvous posterAt the very beginning of Kim Jong-jin’s Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Mannamui Gwangjang), a group of kindly villagers in the north of Korea are caught by surprise when they unwittingly help to build the 38th parallel – a series of fortifications which will divide them from one another forevermore. Family members are trapped on different sides of an artificial border by a matter of accident rather than choice, a decision effectively made for them by the Americans and Russians amping up cold war hostility in engineering a proxy war over war-torn Korea.

30 years after the villagers sealed their own fates through being overly helpful, the South Korea of the 1980s is perhaps not so different from its Northern counterpart. A brief hope for democracy had once again been dashed and the land remained under the yoke of a cruel and oppressive dictatorship. Young-tan (Im Chang-jung), a boy from a poor village, is determined to escape his life of poverty by travelling to Seoul and studying to become a teacher. However, within five minutes of exiting the station, his country bumpkin ways see his only suitcase swiped by a street thief. An attempt to report the crime only gets him into trouble and so Young-tan is sent to a “re-education” camp in the mountains. Falling off the back of a truck, he gets lost and eventually ends up in a remote village where they assume, ironically enough, that he is the new teacher they’ve been expecting for the local school. The village, however, has a secret – one that’s set to be exposed thanks to Young-tan’s questions about a beautiful lady he saw bathing at the local watering hole.

Young-tan turns out to be a pretty good teacher, though not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. The village’s big secret is that the divided families were so attached to each other that they each started digging tunnels to the other side shortly after the wall went up and eventually met somewhere in the middle where they’ve built a large cave they use for underground reunions. Apparently existing for 30 years, no one outside of trusted citizens on either side knows about the tunnel’s existence. No one has used it to switch sides, the only purpose of the tunnel is for relatives and friends to mingle freely in defiance of the false division that’s been inflicted on them by outside forces.

Young-tan, however, is fixated on the bathing woman who turns out to be North Korean Sun-mi (Park Jin-hee) – the sister-in-law of the village chief. Thinking only of his crush and also a comparative innocent and devotee of the moral conservatism of ‘80s Korea, Young-tan catches sight of Sun-mi and the village chief and is convinced that the old man is molesting an innocent young maiden. He sets out to convince the villagers of this, little knowing the truth and unwittingly threatening to expose the entire enterprise through failing to understand the implications of his situation.

Kim pulls his punches on both sides of the parallel, only hinting at the oppressions present on each side of the border with Sun-mi fairly free in the North, working as the army propaganda officer in charge of the noisy broadcasts which attempt to tempt South Koreans to embrace the egalitarian “freedoms” on offer to defectors. Meanwhile the villagers in the South live fairly isolated from the unrest felt in the rest of the country, continuing a traditional, rural way of life but are also under the supervision of a local troop of bored army conscripts on the look out for North Korean spies. Nobody wants to defect, though perhaps there’d be little point in any case, but everyone longs for the day when families can all live together happily as they used to free from political interference.

Satire, however, is not quite the main aim. An absurd subplot sees the “real” teacher marooned on his own after taking a detour and accidentally standing on a landmine leaving him rooted to the spot on pain of death, but the majority of the jokes rest on Young-tan’s “misunderstandings” as a village outsider, goodnatured simpleton, and bullheaded idiot. A final coda tries to inject some meaning by hinting at the effects of repurposing the truth for political gain and the tempered happiness of those who get what they wanted only not quite in the way they wanted it, but it’s too little too late to lend weight to the otherwise uninspired attempts at comedy.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and possibly other territories)

Original trailer (no subtitles)