Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (South Korea, 2013) [NYAFF 2014]

The Korean word “manshin” is a respectful term for shaman, and Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirit concerns Manshin Kim Keum-hwa, who in 1985 became the first shaman of her type to be named an “Intangible Cultural Asset.”

The film, written and directed by Park Chan-kyong, is part bio-pic, part documentary. Manshin Kim is depicted at various stages of her life by different actresses, including Moon So-ri, who portrays her in the 1970s. But Kim also appears as herself, both in old and in contemporary footage.

She was born in 1931 during the Japanese Occupation of 1910-1945 in the northern part of Korea. When she was fourteen she married a man she had never met to avoid becoming a “comfort woman” for the Japanese troops. Horribly mistreated by her mother-in-law, she returned to her parents after three years.

Prone to visions from an early age, which had led to her being shunned by village children, Kim received her Naerim-Gut (initiation ritual) in 1948 when she was seventeen years old. Shamans dream more than other people and see images even when awake. Always outsiders, forever between spirits and “normal people,” they have periodically been subject to efforts to end their practices. There was a campaign to expel superstition during the Japanese Occupation and in the 1970s by the South Korean government with the New Community Movement.

Kim, who came to Incheon in South Korea by boat, managed to survive these campaigns and other threats to both her calling and her life. In the 1980s, shamanism got a reprieve, first from the repressive government of Chun Doo-hwan and then from anti-government student activists. Prejudice against traditional culture and shamanism was alleviated, and shamanism came to be regarded as a new type of culture instead of merely backward superstition. It was at this time that Kim made numerous TV appearances, leading to her becoming an “Intangible Cultural Asset” in the middle of the decade. Kim eventually came to have more than eighty spiritual sons and daughters.

The film makes clear the conflicting dual attitudes that Koreans tend to have toward shamanism. On the outside, they seem to despise it and act dismissively towards it. However, in private, they hold rituals when they have important house issues or seek to have heir fortunes told.

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits provides a fascinating look at a unique and remarkable woman and into the realm of Korean mysticism and spirituality. It ends on a note of self-reflective filmmaking that is both touching and artistically sublime.

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits will have its international premiere as the closing film of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival on July 15 at Asia Society. The full schedule for NYAFF 2014 can be found here.