Daughter of Fire (불의 딸, Im Kwon-taek, 1983)

“Doctor, is it possible in our modern society for someone to suffer from that kind of illness?” the conflicted hero of Im Kwon-taek’s Daughter of Fire (불의 딸, Bul-ui ttal) asks his psychologist, plagued by nightmares of the mother who abandoned him at 11 and suffering what seems to him to be the call to shamanism, only what place could such a backward and superstitious practice have in “our modern society?”. In many ways, it’s exactly that question which Im seems to find so essential, implying in a sense that even in the politically repressive but increasingly prosperous Korea of the late ‘70s that they have perhaps lost something of their essential Koreanness in their abandonment of their ancestral beliefs in favour of modern “sophistication”.

Listening to his troubles, the disinterested psychiatrist reassures Hae-joon that it’s just a “minor neurosis” caused by “frustration” which can easily be cured. On his way home, however, Hae-joon is accosted by an older woman dressed in shaman’s clothing who addresses him as a son, reminding him that he has the blood of shamans running in his veins and try as he might he’ll never be able to escape it. Her intervention perhaps links back to an earlier encounter with the pastor at his wife’s church who explained to him that his wife is at the end of her tether, embarrassed by his lack of faith believing that it reflects badly on her as a religious woman hoping to lead others towards the lord if she cannot at least count her husband among the saved. So great is her distress that she has apparently even considered divorce. This is perhaps one reason Hae-joon is so keen to exorcise his shamanistic desires, though it’s also clear that his presence in his home is intensely resented, his wife later only warmly greeting him by hoping that he’ll be able to let go of his “dark and diabolical life” for something brighter and more cheerful, ie her religion though the grey uniformity and intense oppression of her practice only make her words seem more ironic. 

The pressing problem in his family is that his daughter is also sickly, seemingly with whatever it is which afflicts Hae-joon. She has begun sleepwalking and later suffers with fits and seizures which to a certain way of thinking imply the onset of her shamanistic consciousness. Hae-joon’s Christian family, in a touch of extreme irony, are convinced that an exorcism in the form of a laying on of hands will cure her, yet they like many others view the ritualised religious practice of the shaman as a backward relic of the superstitious past. The ironic juxtaposition is rammed home when Hae-joon is sent to cover a supposed miracle for his newspaper that his wife and her friends from church regard as the second act of Moses, standing ramrod straight and singing hymns while a noisy festival of shamanic song and dance occurs further along the beach apparently a rite to appease both the sea god and the vengeful spirit of an old woman accidentally left behind when her community migrated to another island to escape an onslaught of tigers. Stuck in the middle, Hae-joon exasperatedly explains to his photographer that this parting of the seas isn’t any kind of miracle at all, merely a natural result of low tide revealing that which would normally be hidden. 

Yet despite his unsatisfactory visit with the psychologist, Hae-joon becomes increasingly convinced that only by finding his mother can he come to understand what it is that afflicts him. Speaking to the various men who knew her from the step-father he later ran away from to escape his abuse after his mother disappeared, to a blacksmith who cared for him as an infant, and the men she knew after, Hae-joon begins to understand something of her elemental rage. Driven “mad” by the murder of her lover by the Japanese under the occupation, she wandered the land looking for fire to exorcise her suffering only later to lose that too when the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime outlawed shamanism entirely in his push towards modernity. Consumed by the fires of the times in which she lived, there was no place in which she could be at peace and nor will there be for Hae-joon or for his daughter until they embrace the legacy of shamanism within. 

“Shamanism will not disappear and die” Hae-joon later adds, now able to see that there is or at least could be a place for it in “our modern society” or perhaps that it’s the modern society which must change in order to accommodate it. Despite his long association with depictions of Buddhism, it is the shaman which Im considered the foundation of Korean culture, something he evidently thinks in danger to the perils of a false “modernity”, Hae-joon eventually professing his concerns that without it Korea will forever be oppressed by foreign influence. Only by accepting the shaman within himself can he hope to find freedom in an oppressive society. 


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

Divine Bow (神弓 / 신궁, Im Kwon-taek, 1979)

“From now on we need think only of our children. We can’t pass on shamanism to them. Our children at least should have a bright future” insists a man whose horizons have in one sense been broadened but perhaps in another narrowed following forced immersion in the modern world. A classic “island” film, Im Kwon-taek’s Divine Bow (神弓 / 신궁, Singung) finds a conflicted modern day shamaness reassessing her place in a community which has systemically betrayed her while trying to find a path through the intensity of her grief and sorrow. 

Set almost entirely on the small fishing island of Naro, the film opens with a series of short, static shots of the rainy harbour where an old man sits and strokes his beard wearing traditional Korean dress while a group of seemingly unemployed young men look on listlessly from the boats. It seems the community is in crisis for a number of reasons, the most pressing being a non-existent harvest of fish which they are choosing to attribute to the local shamaness’ refusal to perform the customary rituals. Unmoved by their petitioning, Wangnyeon (Yoon Jeong-hee) advises them to hire her daughter-in-law instead, but for unexplained reasons they only want her, threatening to hire a shaman from a neighbouring island if she continues her policy of non-cooperation. As we will discover, Wangnyeon has her reasons beyond a simple desire for retirement from what is a fairly strenuous job for an ageing woman, but the return of her long absent son Yongban prompts her into a reconsideration of her past and future as well as her place in this community. 

Though the tale is set in the present day, the fishermen are convinced that Wangnyeon’s refusal to conduct the ritual is the reason their harvest has failed, apparently for the first time in 30 years ever since she “retired”. But then they also tell us themselves of more rational reasons they may no longer be able to fish including an oil leak in the surrounding seas and the corrupting influence of larger corporations for which many of them are now reluctantly working. It is precisely this incursion of modernity that has led to all the trouble. Taken off the island, presumably to fulfil his military service, Wangnyeon’s husband Oksu (Kim Hee-ra) observes the modern world during his time in the army and comes to the conclusion that his home culture is backward and superstitious. Hired to perform an important ritual on a neighbouring island for the first time, Wangneyon repeatedly delays the contract to align with her husband’s discharge so he can play drums for her as he always had before. His newfound sophisistication, however, has robbed him of the ability to play. He no longer believes in shamanism and eventually leaves once again to work on a ship in order to one day own a fishing boat of his own. 

“What does a shaman do if not rituals?” Wangnyeon irritatedly asks her husband, in her case the answer apparently being a defiant nothing. Her refusal is part of her resistance to a world that has repeatedly betrayed her. Yet suffering economically temporarily loses her her son who, perhaps unlike his father, returns after a year of travelling more convinced than ever by shamanism if resentful that his mother has not yet relented and resumed her ritual duties. What we realise is that Wangnyeon has grown weary of her complicated place in the island hierarchy, existing to one side of the rest of the community who view her both with mild disdain and fearful awe. A victim of petty island politics, she takes literal aim at the corruption in her society and purifies it with her “divine bow”, mindful of Yongban’s pleas that her rituals are not just for her but for the many people who need to see them performed. 

“Everything, everything, everything is a dream” Wangyeon sings, living perhaps in her own ethereal purgatory, her jagged life story revealed to us in a series of fragmentary flashbacks as she reflects on her present predicament while finally understanding what it is she must do, determining to pick up the divine bow once again and reassume her rightful role as the shamanness. Marking Im’s first collaboration with cinematographer Jung Il-sung, Divine Bow is rich with ethnographic detail exploring this small rock pool of traditional culture on an otherwise moribund island subject to the same petty authoritarian corruptions and ravages of an increasingly capitalistic society as anywhere else. 


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

People in the Slum (꼬방동네 사람들, Bae Chang-ho, 1982)

People in the slum still 2The Korea of the early ‘80s was not an altogether happy place. One dictator fell in 1979, but hopes of returning to democracy were dashed when general Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup and instigated martial law, brutally suppressing a large scale democracy protest in Gwangju in 1980 (though the news of the incident was also suppressed at the time it took place). People in the Slums (꼬방동네 사람들, Kkobangdongne Salamdeul), adapted from the best selling novel by Lee Dong-cheol, is not an overtly political film but takes as its heroes those who have lost out in the nation’s bold forward march into the capitalist future. Opening with a voice over from the author himself, the film dedicates itself to “the memory of neighbours of bygone days”, remembering both the hardships but also the fierce sense of community and warmth to be found among those living at the bottom of the heap.

Myeong-suk (Kim Bo-yeon), a still young-ish woman with a young son, lives in a slum outside of the city with her second husband, Tae-sub (kim Hee-ra). Nicknamed “Black Glove” because of the glove she always wears on her right hand, Myeong-suk is about to open her own business – a small grocery store serving the local residents, but her happiness is tempered with anxiety. Tae-sub, despite his promises, steals money from Myeong-suk to go drinking and gambling, is occasionally violent, and does not get on with her son, Jun-il, who refers to him as Mr. Piggy. Jun-il is also a constant worry because he’s picked up a habit of stealing things and generally causing trouble around the neighbourhood. When Myeong-suk’s former husband and the father of Jun-il, Ju-seok (Ahn Sung-ki), catches sight of her by chance one day, the past threatens to eclipse the small hope of her future.

Life in the slums is not easy. There are few resources, few people are working and there are lots of children with no money to feed and clothe them. Fights are frequent but often unserious. The community pull together to support each other, turning out in force for the grand opening of Myeong-suk’s shop or the 60th birthday celebration of a fellow resident. Besides Myeong-suk, her second husband, and son, the slum is home to a collection of unusual characters from a widow who dresses in white and does strange dances to entertain the locals, to the pastor who does his best to help where he can. A poor drunken woman makes a fool of herself all over town, nursing a crush on the pastor but seemingly unable to move past her dependency on alcohol and whatever it is that caused it and landed her in the slum.

Myeong-suk’s early life would not have suggested her current trajectory, as Bae reveals in Ju-seok’s flashbacks of his courtship to the woman who would become his wife. Ju-seok, a pickpocket, spotted Myeong-suk on a bus and it was love at first sight. Eventually he married her but never revealed his illicit occupation until he was finally arrested. For the sake of his wife and child, Ju-seok attempts to go straight but his efforts are frustrated by bad luck, temptation, and unforgiving policemen. No matter how hard Ju-seok tries to be a decent, hardworking, family man, the economic instability of late ‘70s Korea will not allow him to do it.

Myeong-suk waits for him, but there comes a point she cannot wait anymore. Her second husband is no better than her first and, just like Ju-seok, is hiding something from her. Tae-sub is a bully and a bruiser who is only using Myeong-suk as a convenient place to hide. She cannot rely on him for affection, protection, or financial stability. Ju-seok, at least, did love Myeong-suk even if that love was the very thing which kept leading him back into a life of crime which then took him away from her. Once again love is a luxury the poor cannot afford .

Where the general atmosphere may seem destined for a tragedy for the resilient, suffering Myeong-suk, her damaged son, and reformed taxi-driver former husband, Bae gives them hope for a warmer, if not a better, future. As Myeong-suk prepares to leave the slum, the pastor, encircled by the residents, reads out a passage reminding the locals that a neighbour’s suffering is one’s own suffering while the drunken woman who previously hated children appears to have sobered up and happily hugs a child. Myeong-suk makes a selfless gesture of atonement and solidarity in giving the money from selling her shop to another single mother whose youngest three all have different fathers, perhaps indicating the difficulty of her life since the father of her eldest passed away. Tae-sub too reforms, decides to face the past he’s been running from and make amends for his former life, facilitating a possible reunion for the star-crossed lovers Myeong-suk and Ju-seok. The future suddenly looks brighter, but it remains uncertain and who knows if love and a taxi-driver’s salary will be enough to keep Ju-seok on the straight and narrow as a responsible husband and father in turbulent ‘80s Korea.


People in the Slum screens as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 which is hosting a mini Bae Chang-ho retrospective of three films at each of which the director will be present for a Q&A.

The film was also recently released on all regions blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. In addition to English subtitles on the main feature, the blu-ray also includes English subtitles for the commentary track by Bae Chang-ho and film critic Kim Sungwook, and comes with a bilingual booklet featuring essays by Jang Byung-won (programmer for Jeonju International Film Festival), Lee Yong-cheol (film critic), and Chris Berry (King’s College London).

You can also watch the entirety of the film legally and for free courtesy of the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.