Director finds drama in shamanic ritual

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Director finds drama in shamanic ritual

In a rare effort to document a story about a Korean shaman from a sympathetic viewpoint, “Between,” a new documentary by Lee Chang-je, pulls hard on the heartstrings, as the director describes the traditional priestess as softhearted and humane, unlike the conventional image of shamans as being cold-hearted and barbaric.
In his film, Lee Hye-gyeong, a real mudang, or shaman, performs gut-wrenching rituals such as standing barefoot on blades of raised giant swords while chanting to the reverberating sound of noisy cymbals and gongs to communicate with the dead.?
But when the 49-year-old shaman sits down to listen first to her mortal clients who come to seek her mysterious healing power, she sheds tears and holds their hands, telling them that they’ll be okay and that she understands their fears. She is portrayed as a warmhearted counselor rather than a charlatan or a devil-worshiper, as some people believe.
One of her ritual songs goes, “I hate gods, I hate humans. I want to go far, far away and escape the reality [that I am a mudang],” expressing the agony of living helplessly “in between” the human world and that of the spirits.
For 98 minutes, the director closely follows around the mudang, capturing how she helps a 49-year-old sick woman out of her toils, how she “heals” an 8-year-old boy who was suffering from visual and auditory hallucinations and how she skillfully inducts a new shaman as a 28-year-old woman who is sick because she is supposed to be possessed by a spirit.
Lee Chang-je, 39, said he did not want a religious scholar or an anthropologist to support his ideas about mudang. He said he wanted to find a genuine mudang who could talk about her inner self, though meeting the right one wasn’t easy. He met 30 shamans in person, and talked to 60 more over the phone, but something always felt wrong, he said. When he met Lee Hye-gyeong, though, he was sure he had found his shaman.
“I told her I was impressed by her autobiography and asked her who the stenographer was,” said the director remembering their first encounter. “She bellowed that she had never been insulted so badly.”
She was very clear-headed, reasonable and smart, he said.
“I told him I was never going to appear in his film,” Lee Hye-gyeong said. “There were already too many movies and TV programs about us out there and there were lots more [shamans] more famous than I am. I told him I will not be tested, nor will I be asked to prove the existence of the gods I believe in,” she said.
For eight months, he followed her around with his camera. Although she often demanded that he show her what he had filmed so far, he never did.
“He said I should trust him because he was good,” she said. “I hated that, but then I ended up liking it very much.”
Lee Chang-je said he was never interested in the mudang issue until a professor whom he met while studying film in Chicago told him a mudang’s ritual is like a complete drama, with an introduction, development, turning point and a conclusion.
“But I would have never made it into a drama without her help,” he said.


by Lee Hoo-nam, Lee Min-a
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