Director Im KwonTaek’s The Divine Bow (Shingung, 1979, South Korea) is a drama about the traditional Korean religion of shamanism and features several scenes of rituals and exorcisms. It should be noted, though, that this is far from a horror film, although old superstitions and belief in the supernatural certainly play a part, and there are shocking and suspenseful shots and sequences. On the small fishing island of Naro, many of the local men blame shamaness Wangnyeon (Yoon JeongHee) for the lack of fish in the area because she refuses to perform traditional rituals. She instructs them to allow her daughter-in-law (Bang Hie) to perform the rituals, but they refuse because they feel Wangnyeon is the strongest shamaness in the area. Her husband OkSu (Kim HeeRa) returns from the army with a more worldly outlook than when he left the superstitious island, and he has lost his shamanistic faith and accompanying musical abilities. He leaves again to work on a fishing vessel and save up for a boat of his own. Her son also returns from time away and holds it against her that she is losing out on financial opportunities by not performing rituals. Meanwhile, her daughter-in-law takes up with the island loan shark.
When tragedy strikes, Wangnyeon comes out of her self-professed retirement and performs a ritual on her own terms. Yoon gives a striking performance as a woman who has her personal reasons for not performing shamanistic rituals for people who loathe and fear her, and a wife and mother who has family issues rooted deeply in the real world as well as the spiritual. The Divine Bow is an impressive cinematic time capsule, with cinematographer Jung IlSung capturing both the beauty of the island and the stark, sometimes brutal conditions under which island inhabitants often lived. Im serves up plenty of shamanistic performances and rituals, and the contrast between audience reactions from Wangnyeon’s initial such performance to the climactic one is telling. The melodrama is high with The Divine Bow, which leads up to a suspenseful climax that may be telegraphed but is powerful nonetheless.
Im’s Daughter of the Flames (AKA Daughter of Fire, originally Bului dal, 1983, South Korea) takes a different approach, told often in flashbacks by different characters as a man haunted by the call of shamanism is confronted by his wife’s strong Christian beliefs. Hae Joon (Park GeunHyeong) explains to his psychiatrist that the mere waking thought of his mother YongNyo (Bang Hie in a wonderfully eerie and enigmatic performance) sends him into vomiting fits and she haunts his dreams, as does the music that accompanies shamanistic exorcisms, yet he is obsessed with finding out what happened to her since last seeing her when he was a child. Taking a reporting assignment that sends him to the area of south Jeolla province where he was raised, he locates HwaRyong (Kim HeeRa), a woodcutter blind in one eye who once lived with YongNyo and served as a stepfather figure to HaeJoon. HwaRyong spares no details in explaining how he randomly met YongNyo outside near his home one night, and how her previous lover handed over both her and baby HaeJoon to him that same evening. This is only the beginning of HaeJoon’s journey among YongNyo’s succession of lovers and their memories of his mother, a woman of strange behavior and a shamanistic figure who was most comfortable when near fire.
Meanwhile, at HaeJoon’s home, his wife and members of her church try to exorcise the couple’s young daughter — ironic, considering their disdain for the traditional religious practices of shamanism — who has been sleepwalking and having shamanistic visions of her own. The flashback sequences are the most interesting aspect of Daughter of the Flames for me, driving a mystery that becomes more intriguing the more that HaeJoon learns about YongNyo and the more that he begins to accept the call to become a shaman himself. The characters during these sequences are colorful and unusual. A main point of the film is the clash between the traditional Korean religion — which has more than once been banned but has always found a renaissance — and more-modern-to-Korea Christianity, but those religious and philosophical discussions sometimes wind up as talky scenes that come off less interesting than the tale of YongNyo, and HaeJoon’s coming to terms with his previously unknown past.
The Divine Bow and Daughter of the Flames screened as part of The London Korean Film Festival, which ran from 29 October through 12 November 2020.