The Shaman Sorceress is one of the most beautiful films presented at the 2020 Annecy Film Festival. The Korean musical drama follows the fate of a family divided by religions - the matriarch, Mo-Wha, is a Shaman who believes in several gods while her estranged son Wook-Yi follows the path of Christianity. Mo-Wha is revered for her power - which she believes came to her during a time when she and her hard of hearing daughter Nang-Yi were stricken with illness - to heal the sick and perform different miracles around her village. As time goes by and Christianity is spread throughout the country, Mo-Wha feels her power dwindling - this is escalated by the appearance of her son bringing the religion to her home.
Seeing Mo-Wha struggle to find a sense of peace and self seems to set The Shaman Sorceress up to be a compelling drama. However, The Shaman Sorceress is a true tragedy in the best possible way. Clinging to tradition and to what came to Mo-Wha in her dreams makes it clear that her fanaticism isn’t going to go anywhere. As the western influence invades Mo-Wha’s home during this time in her life, alongside the fact that she feels an insurmountable guilt about how her family has turned out, she descends into madness. Having two children from two different fathers out of wedlock and having one become impaired due to trauma that Mo-Wha can’t fix also draws questions to her spiritual prowess. To make such a complex character out of a woman soaked in the waves of what could be called scandal back then and even today (though it has taken on a more mainstream role in many cultures), really makes the film worth investing in. It’s also rare to have a character whose next move or idea is nearly impossible to predict.
The Shaman Sorceress as a musical is extremely effective. There are several musical numbers and somehow each manages to find its own light without overshadowing one another. One of my viewing partners described one song as “if Queen could sing in Korean,” and I’d have to agree. The instrumentation of each song and the depth behind the lyrics, not only in the context of each song, but the film as a whole, is a great storytelling device. While it can be easy to lose focus on the plot during a musical number due to how fun, upbeat, or depressing a song is (“Lost in the Woods” from Frozen II. Yeah, I said it), the songs in The Shaman Sorceress are interwoven so seamlessly that it’s hard to not stay tuned in. It could be said that it can be a bit too theatrical at times, but for the story being told, that’s hardly a problem.
The animation used in The Shaman Sorceress can be a bit odd. It is seamless throughout most of the 84-minute runtime, but it is worth noting that there are times where the characters are singing but their mouths don’t move. While it may be disorienting for some, it can certainly catch someone’s attention in case they - by some unholy marvel - space out. Otherwise it is an interesting choice that adds more intrigue to the film than what may have already been present. Beyond that one choice, The Shaman Sorceress is an eye-glistening phenomenon, with the 2D animation somehow giving a certain flair to things like fire, water, and paintings.
Due to having so much content to give, The Shaman Sorceress may feel long despite its relatively short runtime. It feels like the film takes its time to tell its story correctly. Whether that fact is a vice or not is up to the viewer, but The Shaman Sorceress is definitely worth everyone’s time.