Set at the juncture of Korean history when feudalism gave way to modernity, “The Shaman Sorceress,” directed by Ahn Jae-huun, depicts the tragedy of a mudang who looses her footing when her spiritual practice is challenged by Christianity. Two years after generating buzz as a work-in-progress project at 2016’s Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival, the finished product doesn’t disappoint and should cast its spell on specialist anime fans, though the protagonists’ fates may be too cruel to target young or mainstream audiences.
Based on a short story written in 1936 by Nobel Prize nominee Kim Dong-ree, the film is punctuated with song and dance, which gives it the emotional sweep of an animated musical. While the film’s hand-drawn style is expressive and resplendent with period details, the animation technique itself appears rather primitive, perhaps deliberately so.
In a prologue that establishes the film’s melancholy spirit, the narrator reminisces about the rise and fall of his family fortunes. Sumptuously detailed illustrations of his ancestral estate evoke the elegance of a bygone era, and the dissipation of his grandfather’s art collection serves as a metaphor for the demise of traditional Korean culture. Into this world of faded glory comes Nang-yi, a sad-eyed, hard-of-hearing girl with a gift for painting. The patriarch, bereft of his treasures, takes her in to assuage his craving for art.
From here, the narrator takes audiences back to Nang-yi’s origins, as the daughter of Mohwa (voiced by Sonya), a woman who chose to become a mother out-of-wedlock not once but twice. Deeply attached to her older half-brother Wook-yi (voiced by Kim Da-hyn), she has not yet gone deaf. The family enjoys an idyllic life in the countryside, where their thatched cottage and surrounding natural habitat is drawn in sun-kissed light and painterly strokes.
Mohwa represents a rare example of a woman skirting the edges of patriarchal society, radical in her time even by contemporary Korean standards. However, as the children grow up, Mohwa caves in to conventional wisdom, sending Wook-ki off to a temple to be raised by monks — the only means for the humble class to obtain an education — though the choice brings trouble.
First, Nang-yi is so devastated by her brother’s absence that she falls ill and loses her hearing. Mohwa also succumbs, and in her delirium, she dreams of supernatural things. She wakes up believing she’s been touched by some power above, reinventing herself as a shaman who can exorcise demons. With bold flashes of color and hypnotic drum music, the animation depicts eerily eye-opening Korean pagan rituals.
Ahn weaves in an intriguing psychological dimension to Mohwa’s magic, which she has convinced herself into possessing, feeding off her followers’ belief. This leads to bitter conflict when Wook-ki returns as a devout Christian. His attempt to convert her, and her sheer horror that he might be possessed by demons (she calls his God “the Jesus ghost”) not only symbolize cultural unease rising from Western influence entering Korea, but captures the painful clash of wills between the two generations.
As with parents threatened by their children’s antagonistic political views, the shock comes partly from realizing that their onetime dependents are now autonomous beings. This culminates in a scene when the western-educated Wook-yi can no longer hide his contempt for his mother’s superstitions, and Mohwa’s hurt is palpable. In a plaintive song, she echoes her fear of losing control, evoking the delicate equilibrium of parent-child relations,: “What to do with you? Might break if too close, might fly away if too windy. My son, like the sweet rain.”
The film is not only about the erosion of Korean culture in the wake of modernization, which is sometimes seen as inseparable from westernization. It’s also a study of the collapse of faith and collective values. Mohwa believes that her magic powers are dwindling when people start to doubt them — a blow to her identity and purpose that results in hysteria. Such was the precarious station for unmarried women in those times that Nang-yi, raised without formal education and total seclusion from men, suffers sexual neurosis when she reaches puberty. Mohwa’s final act to win back the public’s trust and her children’s love is rife with doomed pathos, accentuated by ghostly watery imagery and a color palette that desolately contrast with previous flashes of stark colors.
Han Hae-jin’s magnificent production design makes sharp juxtapositions of rich and poor, east and west, such as cross-cutting the simple grace of church pews and stained glass windows with the clutter of religious objects in Mohwa’s shabby Han-ok (Korean-style house). Music evolves from the mournful strains of traditional pansori in early scenes to more modern, westernized songs later in the film.
In contrast with the intricacy of backdrops, human figures are sketched in rough lines with limited facial expressions. Most of the time, they move laterally within the frame, as if keyed to the static backgrounds. Unlike sophisticated Japanese animations, where landscapes stir with life, most of the action is enabled by the camera panning across the drawings.