[Movie] On the Possibility of Nationalistic Occultism: 3.1 Movement and <EXHUMA:破墓>

Perhaps the most controversial movie of the year, "EXHUMA" stands on two delicate points. The "Asian universals" of goodness and shamanism and the "limitations of 100 years of time", which are the three dimensions of the soul's dispersion, collide in an interesting way.


Author : JUNG, Hojai (K-pop Columnist)

Date  : 2024. March.

The Korean movie "Sabaha," directed by Jang Jae-hyun, born in 1981 in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do, has an interesting theme and plot, but it is puzzling because it is riddled with factual holes. To take a very small example, Lee Jung-jae, who plays the main character of a pastor in the movie, tells the story of the loss of his missionary colleague's family in South Africa, where a Muslim believer killed the Korean missionary's family, claiming that it was "God's will (Inshallah)". South Africa is a country with an 80% Christian population. There are missionaries from other countries in South Africa, but it's not a place where radicalized Muslims openly attack them. In addition, there are some scenes that present Tibetan esotericism and the emerging esoteric scriptures as a revelation with many weak linkages, which may be disturbing to those who have studied religion in depth.

However, the film's strengths lie in its dark imagery, which is quite good in terms of the familiar occult elements. The film was praised for its freshness in combining the desolate landscapes of the Korean countryside with the Eastern and Western apocalyptic themes of human sin, death, resurrection, and the source of life. As a result, "Sabaha" has managed to attract quite a few audiences with praise for its indigenous occultism that makes it hard to believe that it was made by a director born in Korea in 1981.

Spirits and Ghost

At that time, occult and shamanistic movies were often shown on TV, such as "Home of Legends" and typical Korean movies, and occasionally there would be a scene where "spirits" appeared. I remember watching them and being quite shocked. I don't think there's an exact definition of what a ghost is, but the definition I got from watching that movie seems to be that it's a phenomenon where ghosts have some sort of physical power - a real "force" that can be seen, make things fall, etc.

In previous occult Korean films, the spirits of the dead are sometimes visualized, for example, when a handkerchief is placed on the nose of a person who has just died, and the handkerchief flies into the room or moves around, confusing the people trying to perform the burial. Perhaps because of this effect, I remember thinking as a child that I shouldn't go near a person who had just died. I thought I'd be possessed by a ghost (that's why the body is not shown to anyone but the family at Korean funerals).

The belief in the existence of a person's soul is very old, and it is a basic idea in East Asia that the soul stays on earth for a long time. Nowadays, fewer and fewer families perform rituals, but according to old folk beliefs and religions, human spirits exist in this world for "about 100 years," and their descendants must perform rituals for them, feeding and healing them, so that their spirits will slowly disappear without any regrets.

Shaman, Gut (Korean exorcism), and Shamanism

Many Koreans know the legendary documentary photographer Kim Soo-nam (1949-2006), a former photojournalist for the Dong-A Daily, who was called "Journalist Shaman" or "Shaman with a Camera" for his lifelong work reporting and documenting shamanism. When he was young, the "modernism" craze was sweeping the country. Shamanism and tradition continued to wither away, but as he covered shamans and gut performances, the Jeju native couldn't help but notice the archetypes of human life captured in them. Eventually, his interest expanded from the "gut and shamans" of the Korean peninsula to Okinawa, Japan, and China, and then to Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Indonesia.

The human and natural landscapes in his camera's field of view communicate with the theme of "gut," which speaks to the universality of human life on earth, always with suffering. The beauty of life, the awareness of its limitations, and the most poignant "appeal" to the supreme court of nature are the same everywhere on earth, and although "shamanism", the practice of appealing to the spirits of the earth, has been criticized as irrational, it is his lifelong observation and record that, if you look at it with open eyes, there is nothing more reasonable than "shamanism". He died suddenly in 2006 while filming near Chiang Mai, Thailand, and it was the efforts of these pioneers that laid the groundwork for the openness we have today to shamans, gut and other spiritual rituals of ordinary people.

Courtesy KimSoo-namFoundation

Nationalist Ghosts?

Perhaps the most controversial movie of the year, "EXHUMA" stands on two delicate points. The "Asian universals" of goodness and shamanism and the "limitations of 100 years of time", which are the three dimensions of the soul's dispersion, collide in an interesting way. In other words, shamanism is a universal sentiment.

But the political economy of reality can never be unified into a universal feeling. It's divided by borders, and there's hostility towards those outside the borders. It is no wonder that the Ukrainians hate the Russians, the Palestinians are hostile to Israel, and Korean people can never be hospitable to the Japanese imperialists with their "all men are brothers" mentality because of the common belief that the ghosts of our grandfathers and great-grandmothers who suffered atrocities under imperialism are still wandering the world.

The ancestors who died hundreds or thousands of years ago in the history of Korea as a result of the invasion of the enemy ethnic group are unlikely to cause us serious emotional distress. But the souls of the victims of the Jeju Island 4.3 Massacre in 1950 are still something we should treat with care, pay tribute to every year, and use as a trigger for national honor and reflection because it is a universal way of behaving in the world. Anyone who goes to Auschwitz and laughs is crazy. Because kinship is contemporary, at least within a hundred years. This is due to the common belief that human lives and souls continue for about 100 years after death. So there is a certain rationality to the director's assertion that a "nationalist spirit" is possible.


The indigenous and Korean "gut performances" are a scene that is stubbornly recreated and reiterated in Korean cinema, thanks to the dynamic images that make people's heart beat fast. Famous actress Kim Go-eun, I just began to love her after seeing the movie. It's a strange feeling that I haven't felt before. In the previous movie, "Sabaha", the gut scenes were not so good as 《EXHUMA》. Maybe it was because the director was overly conscious of Western occultism, and he didn't show much obsession with the good, so Hwang Jung-min from Gokseong was usually mentioned, but after the success of Pamyo, Kim Go-eun's good scene will be talked about for a while.

It's a very short scene, but for those 10 minutes, I couldn't breathe and was completely immersed in the movie. It was amazing. The actors and director did a great job.(minor spoilers) However, there is a bit of confusion and controversy in the second half of the movie, when the movie becomes less dense and goes back 400 years to the "ghosts" of the Imjin War of the Joseon Dynasty. This may be a bit of a spoiler, but as spirits (ghosts) are grafted onto history, the themes of "shamanism" and "human oneness" that we universally feel clash with each other and seem to be out of place. This is probably my biggest regret about the movie.

Choi Min-sik, Korean Deep Face

I watched this movie on March 1st without any intention. As it has been pointed out several times, March 1 is the so-called "founding day" of the modern nation of Woorina. It is a very honorable and proud national holiday. It is unfortunate that in the past the military government focused so much on "anti-Japanese" that the purpose of the provisional government's establishment was lost, and only the brutal Japanese education system and the rebellion against it remained in the public's mind.

Actor Choi Min-sik is largely responsible for the emotional impact of the film. His face, his facial expressions and his deep voice have a native Korean power. He is Korean himself, and that is what makes the movie so convincing. Kim Go-eun's expression is also very Korean. Lee Do-hyun as Bong-gil was also satisfying and did not remind me at all of his previous role in "The Glory". All in all, I think this movie is a must see, especially in these politically turbulent times in Korea.

Kim Go-Eun, 《EXHUMA》 2024


  1. There are many descendants of former pro-Japanese who sold their large amount of land and fled to the United States. Song Byung-joon's descendants are typical, and his grave disappeared because no one took care of it.
  2. There are many Korean ghost stories, often dealing with Japanese karma caused by imperialism.
  3. As many have pointed out, I agree that this would have been a much bigger and more epic movie if it had focused more on the "grave and the background of the curse" story at the beginning.