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.

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.

Love Me Once Again (미워도 다시 한번, Jung So-young, 1968)

love me once again posterBy the late 1960s, Korean society was caught in a moment of intense social change. Though under the oppressive authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, the strict censorship regulations of the early 1970s had not yet taken effect and the 1962 Motion Picture Law which encouraged a shift towards commercial cinema intended for mass entertainment created a fertile ground for melodrama which itself enabled subtle commentary on modern society. The first in what would become a long running series with two sequels and a number of remakes stretching into the 1980s, Love Me Once Again (미워도 다시 한번, Miweodo Dasi Han Beon) is a prime example. A box office hit and pop culture phenomenon, Love Me Once Again is a somewhat unusual entry the melodrama canon in its broadly sympathetic treatment of adultery and attitude towards children born out of wedlock.

The film begins in the present as family patriarch Shin-ho (Shin Young-kyun) enjoys a pleasant family Sunday fishing with his son and picnicking with his wife (Jeon Gye-hyeon) and daughter but the scene is quickly interrupted by a servant who comes to fetch Shin-ho to greet an urgent visitor to the house. The visitor turns out to be an old friend of Shin-ho’s who has a distressing message for him – Hye-young (Moon Hee), a young woman with whom he had an affair eight years previously, is back in town and would like to meet.

Flashing back eight years, Hye-young is a young kindergarten teacher living in the lodging house where Shin-ho is staying while working away from home. The pair become friends and everyone seems to assume they are a couple, though Shin-ho insists Hye-young is just a friend. Nevertheless, he eventually begins an affair with her leading Hye-young to turn down a marriage arranged by her parents. Though Shin-ho discourages her to do this, Hye-young has no idea he is already married with two children and believes he will marry her at some point in the future. Shin-ho plans to tell Hye-young about his wife but can’t bring himself to do it, allowing her to find out in the worst possible way when his wife arrives with both kids in tow. Realising she’s been duped and feeling in the way, Hye-young takes off without warning leaving only a letter wishing Shin-ho well and letting him know that she is pregnant with his child and intends to raise it alone.

Hye-young is certainly a very “modern” forward thinking woman though she is also morally upright, only embarking on a relationship with Shin-ho because she believes he is the man she will spend her life with. Her family had arranged a marriage for her and express their frustration with Hye-young for not returning home immediately in a letter which also makes plain that they will suffer embarrassment if she refuses the marriage altogether – which she does. When she returns home pregnant with Shin-ho’s child, her brother (who seems to be the head of the family), throws her out. Hye-young’s mother seems more sympathetic, but is powerless to help. Hye-young will have to manage on her own without the assistance of friends or family.

Eight years on she has a lovely little boy, Young-shin (Kim Jung-hoon), whom she has raised alone in hardship but not unhappiness. Encouraged by her brother and seeing how Young-shin looks on enviously at other little boys playing with their fathers on the beach, Hye-young begins to wonder if it might not be better to have Shin-ho raise Young-shin alongside his other two children in a middle-class family home. As Shin-ho’s son he would have a life of material comfort, a paternal input, and be free of the stigma of being the illegitimate child of an unmarried single mother.

Though the situation is difficult, it is handled with calm and maturity on all sides, not least from Shin-ho’s wife who takes a while to think hard on the situation and then agrees to look after Young-shin but only as a full adoption. She asks that Hye-young refrain from writing to or seeing her son, leaving him entirely in the family’s care. Hye-young has made her decision and agrees that may be for the best, even declining the offer of written updates from Shin-ho’s best friend. Once Young-shin has become a part of Shin-ho’s family, his wife truly does her best to make him feel at home as the third of her children, treating him kindly and taking the older two to task for teasing their “baby brother”. The children however are not quite so accepting with Shin-ho’s eldest son particularly hostile, bullying little Young-shin mercilessly even though he has done nothing to provoke his anger other than try to be friends with him. Getting a new little brother is perhaps particularly hard for the children who now have to share everything with a virtual stranger, but despite the efforts of Shin-ho’s wife, she just can’t seem to make them accept him.

Shin-ho, feeling awkward and guilty, is not quite as committed as his wife is to making the new family work. He tries to treat Young-shin as his son, but never quite connects with or makes him feel at home. The major problem is that the family all insist Young-shin must forget about Hye-young and commit fully to his new family as they are committing to him but that’s a lot to ask for an eight year old boy who quite fairly misses his mother and does not understand why he is not allowed to see her. A crisis occurs when Shin-ho angrily confiscates a locket Hye-young had given Young-shin containing her photo as a memento, sending him off on a long journey trying to find a way back to his mother. Being only eight, Young-shin has no idea how to go about finding her bar knowing the name of the town where he used to live. Roaming around the city all alone calling his mother’s name, Young-shin stays out all night. Shin-ho and his wife are sick with worry, searching for him in the pouring rain, but when he finally returns drenched and miserable, Shin-ho treats him only with anger and not with tenderness.

Meanwhile, Hye-young is struggling to come to terms with her decision to “abandon” her son, having bad dreams that Young-shin is being mistreated or is miserable, missing her as much as she misses him. Obeying the family’s request to stay away, Hye-young cannot resist coming to visit and observing from far away, hoping to catch a glimpse of her son and find out if he is well and happy. Unfortunately she turns up just as he’s gone out looking for her and spots him cowering outside Shin-ho’s house, drenched in the rain. Afraid to go near him she urges him to go inside, calling out from the shadows only to be spotted by Shin-ho as she makes her escape.

Rather than wallow in misery, Jung does not refuse the inherent melodrama of the situation but addresses it realistically and with a degree of maturity and patience most real life situations can only aspire to. Hye-young believes that Shin-ho hates herself and her son and will never be able to accept them as members of his family, but even so he does appear to have developed at attachment to Young-shin and hopes that he can maintain contact with him even if it remains clear Young-shin cannot remain in their home. Shin-ho’s wife too makes a point of not blaming Young-shin for her husband’s mistake and displays compassion for Hye-young who meant her no harm and has incurred only suffering as a result of her involvement with Shin-ho. Where most melodramas would punish Hye-young for her transgressions, Jung is kinder to her, never condemning her for her “immoral” behaviour in sleeping with Shin-ho before marriage and making it clear that her decision to live independently as a single woman and raise Young-shin alone is not only valid but correct and to be supported. A controversial attitude for the Korea of 1968 but one which declares itself on the side of modernity rather than adherence to traditions which more often than not create more problems than they solve.


Available to stream for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.