Busan Film Review: ‘The Shaman Sorceress’

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.