Hunting for “KIM Mudangnim”
Yesterday morning, Seoul Mudang Union officially cursed the new chief of police to protest his controversial decision to issue an arrest warrant against the elusive Kim D. K.
“Miss Kim is a most eminent and respectable member of our community” said Gwang Mu-I, leader of the country’s most powerful shamanist association. “She has been collaborating with the police for years, and helped them solve countless cases. Miss Kim embodies the fight against corruption in this city and all of a sudden, one troubled man decides that the best way to clean the streets of corruption is to get rid of her, to turn our national hero into a fugitive. Tell me : is this justice or obstruction of justice ?”
Chief Kang answered during a press conference interrupted several times by mudang demonstrators performing cleansing rituals : “Well, now I’m cursed, so what ? Protecting this city is not a walk in the park anyway. And what am I accused of ? Come on, that person has always been a fugitive : no one knows where Kim lives, how she lives, nor even if Kim is her real name. Here’s someone who doesn’t have any I.D. and keeps evading taxes and all civic duties, and that’s already a crime. Furthermore, she’s constantly trespassing on restricted areas and we decently couldn’t tolerate that any longer. For all we know, we were palling around with a terrorist or a foreign agent. No doubt about it : Kim D. K., or whatever her name is, represents a clear and immediate danger to our society.”
Apparently, this feeling is not shared by all members of the police. On condition of anonymity, many expressed their support for the star shaman, and their disagreement with their new Chief.
Still. If they overwhelmingly respect Kim D. K. for what she accomplished over the past ten years, most officers remain uncomfortable in her presence. Senior Police Officer B. confesses that he feels goose bumps whenever he meets her : “She doesn’t even have to call some spirit : just knowing her in the room gives me the creeps. And her ability to summon doors whenever she needs one… I know you can reach the other end of the city instantly, but I would never follow her down there. Only Inspector Suh did. You gotta be crazy… either crazy in love or crazy, period.”
To the risk of disappointing millions of fans, neither Senior Police Officer B. nor any of his colleagues would confirm what only popular novels or the hit movie “Kim Mudangnim” (김 무당님) established as a fact in their hearts : Suh Bong-soo and Kim D. K., the most glamorous pair of crime fighters, would be partners far beyond their common quest for justice… Needless to say, the inspector’s resignation the very day Kim’s arrest warrant was issued and his subsequent disappearance did more than fuel speculations across internet forums.
Likewise, a lot has been said and written about the “hanok portal” phenomenon, but all attempts to film or photograph it – or Kim herself, for that matter – failed miserably, resulting only in overexposed images. The mudang would have the power to materialize doors only on the walls of authentic traditional houses, and all hanok owners pretend to have seen her honor them with a few discreet visits. Many display this message above their thresholds : “Welcome to our house Kim Mudangnim. Know that you can also use this door next time you pass by”.
The shaman is said to feel actual pain each time a traditional house is destroyed, as if it were a part of herself. Urban redevelopments have considerably reduced her reach, but over the past few years, several projects were canceled because of her popularity. Yesterday, one officer went as far as accusing his new chief of being the corrupt one : “Kang owes his nomination to construction lobbies, and these guys have always dreamed of sidelining her. Our mudang is the most charismatic advocate of hanok preservation”.
Some Kim D. K. critics maintain she excels even more in her own preservation : behind this legendary beauty would hide an old witch who seduced a policeman to seek revenge against criminals. Her name itself would be a pun in English to celebrate her own decay.
Old witch or young heroin ? Whatever the answer, Kim Mudangnim definitely added a modern twist to traditional Korean shamanism : she’s rumored to work plain-clothed, to call spirits through any brand of cell phones, and to perform ritual dances and songs luscious enough to raise more than a few “goose bumps”.
A heartthrob for men, a symbol of independence for women, a modern hero for kids, a guardian of traditions for older citizens… Seoul loves Kim D. K.
As the movie scenario goes, Kim started a poor school drop-out desperately looking for a job. One day, she overheard a ceremony from an alleyway and peeked through cracks in a wall : what appeared to be a crafted con artist was overacting a gut, collecting an amazing amount of money from a very poor and gullible audience. After the “show”, Kim followed the old woman and threatened to denounce her if she didn’t teach her the tricks of the trade. But the young girl turned out to be a genuine psychic, and the fake mudang introduced this diamond in the rough to an authentic master. The novice would then meet another legend : Ho Rang-hee, the semi-god figure of underground Seoul many consider to be, unlike D. K., a pure myth.
Chief Kang also shared his opinion on the matter : “We don’t know if this ‘Tiger’ really exists” (‘horangi’ means ‘tiger’ in Korean), but we sure meet some of his ‘cubs’ every now and then. Most of them are just stupid attention-seekers : clowns dressed in black from head to toe, doing martial art stunts, and pretending to work for the big guy. The “real” ones pop up when Kim needs a hand to fight, and they disappear as soon as it’s over. We never heard them say any word nor utter any sound : they’re tough, and they’re professionals. The way I see it, she’s the boss, and a mafia kind of boss. Tiger ? That’s just a smokescreen, a name to make us believe she has nothing to do with them.”
In the movie, “Tiger” is to the contrary a force of good defending the city against organized crime. Kim Tae-gun gained much more fame thanks to his role as the old giant with a ruined face than as the former captain of Korea’s national basketball team. The Ho Rang-hee legend starts over a century ago up in Buram mountain, with an old woman finding a baby boy soundly asleep on a tiger’s lap, his scar presumably the mark of a rival feline. The boy grows into an illiterate teenager with the body of a man, exploited by brutal entrepreneurs, working on infrastructures during the day and sabotaging Japanese compounds at night. After the murder of his surrogate mother, Tiger withdraws completely from society to organize resistance (first against occupants, then against dictatorship, and finally against mobsters), shifting from one secret lair to another.
“I want my fellow citizens to understand that I’m not launching a witch hunt against popular movie characters”, Kang pleaded to the cameras. “I’m not a bad guy, I’m just trying to be a good cop, to do my job in this real world of ours. I know that’s not very sexy, I know I’m not very sexy” (laughters : a little under 59 and over 5 feet, the new Chief won’t make the cover of any fashion magazine), “but I do care for this city and someone has to wake it up from its pleasant dreams.”
His “fellow citizens” obviously decided otherwise : after sunset, downtown Seoul took an air of joyous and surreal carnival featuring lotus lanterns, people parading as shamans or Ho Rang-hee shadows, couples dressed like the movie version of the Suh-Kim duet, and pranksters drawing fake hanok doors on all public buildings.
The first such joke was discovered in the very headquarters of Seoul Metropolitan Police, right after the press conference : the door had been hastily drawn with its caption “shortcut to Kang’s soul” on the restroom’s wall.
At the time this journal goes to press, the Korean capital seems to be more actively looking for its weirdest citizen than for some sense of sanity.
Stephane MOT 2008