Night Fishing: delving into the world of Korean shamanism and spirituality with an Apple iPhone 4

Park Chan-kyong, Park Chan-wook, “Night Fishing / Paranmanjang” (2011)

Filmed using an Apple iPhone4, this fantasy-horror film delves into the little understood world of Korean shamanism and spirituality, and the role they still have in modern Korean society. A fisherman (Oh Kwang-rok) working in a swampy area at night (a strange time to be out fishing) throws a line out into the water and almost immediately snags a good trout. He rushes over and next thing you know, he’s entangled in the line and falling on top of a drowned woman (Lee Jeong-hyeon). The woman gradually comes alive in a fairly comic scene and initially viewers think the man has choked and suffocated on all the water she threw up. The two recover and have a conversation, during which the woman starts rattling some bells on a staff (in Korean films, an indication that something isn’t quite what we expect it is) and begins to wail …

The version of the film I saw had no English-language sub-titles and was dubbed in Russian instead so I flat-out had no idea what the main characters plus the rest of the cast were talking about. However Western viewers will quickly work out that the young woman is an intermediary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The scenes that take place in the world of the dead are filmed in black and white and those in the land of the living are in colour. A mother (Lee Yong-nyeo) and her wheelchair-bound daughter consult the young shaman as to why and how their husband / father died tragically. The shaman, after visiting the land of the dead, asks for forgiveness from the mother and child on behalf of the dead man.

The ceremony in which the shaman contacts the dead man and relays his message to the anxious family is marked by solemn droning music and the entire scene is intense and emotional. The bright colours heighten the drama of the ritual and actors Lee JH and Lee YN demonstrate remarkable restraint as well as almost histrionic emotion together. Lee JH in particular commands the viewer’s attention with her performance in a wooden tub filled with water and immediately afterwards, when she steps out to grab the child, in a highly theatrical act of spirit possession.

The film can be beautiful to watch, especially in its final scenes where there is a tranquil scene shot of a blue lake with a peaceful blue sky above followed by a number of painted scenes of perhaps important historic Korean personalities and saints that perhaps reference Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Andrei Rublev”. True to form, Park Chan-wook includes macabre humour early on, a twist in the plot and scenes of extreme emotional outpouring. The use of an iPhone 4 for filming gives the short the appearance of cinéma vérité: there is one scene filmed from some distance showing people preparing for a ritual in the shaman ceremony and viewers are given a taste of what it might feel like to be a voyeur spying on other people’s private sorrows.

The plot cannot sustain a length longer than 30 minutes and the fact that the twist is a major part of the film’s narrative and cuts it into two nearly equal halves that mimic eastern Asian philosophical and spiritual ideas of a universe in which polar opposites, represented by the yin-yang principle, govern its structure, means that “Night Fishing” does not bear very many repeated viewings by the general public. The film showcases Park Chan-wook’s  style of fantasy film-making and directing combined with his particular interpretation of how a Korean cultural tradition still grounds modern Korean society and allows people to express their frustrations, grief and troubles in dealing with personal crises.

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