Putting the cult in cultural appropriation.
In a bustling city, Minjung and her friend Mina set up a fortune-telling business in a small section of a building in the hopes of making some quick money. Not only did they make quick money, but the money kept coming. Eventually, they expanded their operation, hiring a skeevy adman named Akao to help with promotion and investment.
They call the business God’s Water. They have moved the operation to the top floor of building in what looks like a residential area. The jar of water that Minjung had used as a fortune teller has become a fish tank holding only water, surrounded by plants and religious artifacts. Her previously informal outfit has become a hanbok. And her clientele has become more…troubled.
Mamoru has come for help. His brother committed suicide and grief has driven his mother insane. She is falling apart and he fears that he will too if things keep going like this. Minjung tells him that she will consult the oracle. She turns to the tank, closes her eyes, and whispers what sounds like a prayer in Korean. She turns back around and five other people in the room take out their cellphones, pointing them at her. Minjung says something in Korean about nature calming his heart. Granted, no one else in the room can understand what she is saying, but it sounds profound.
It is some time later and Minjung is chatting with a friend on the phone about meeting up later in the week for drinks. Mina tells her that two people who had visited the other week, Sawamura and Hara, wish to join. Hara was the one whose husband was paralyzed due to a car accident. Mina says that troubled people like them really need God’s Water. Minjung smirks. It’s a neat pitch. Does Mina really believe that Minjung has special powers? As far as Mina is concerned, it is not about whether she has the power to heal these people, but that she has the power to make people believe. And the believers get better. It is practically the same.
Minjung walks down a city street full of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. She may blend into Japanese society more easily than her buddy Ali or the Nepali grocer, but she still finds a level of affinity with her fellow outsiders.
That affinity is something that she does not share with her father, Mioki. Their dinner at a restaurant starts out warmly enough, with their reminiscing about the time he tried to take the family swimming during a typhoon when she was four or five. Nope, actually she was seven. Mioki laughs; who cares about that detail? Minjung points out that that was the only family holiday that they ever had. The conversation stalls as she gets to the point. She dislikes the fact that he suddenly turned up out of nowhere, talking about money. This isn’t the first time. The reminiscing was just a means of comparing how nice he seemed back then to how he is now. Mioki doesn’t get it. Why can she help everyone except for her own father? He tells her that he will be in big trouble if he does get cash by tomorrow. He apologizes. He begs. She once again turns him down. He lashes out at her, accusing her of cheating people out of their money through her cult. He says that she has now heart and is unfit to be a daughter before storming out of the restaurant.
It is another session at God’s Water. Sae tells a horrifying story of rape and betrayal that has twisted her into something vile, something that she does not want to be anymore. So Minjung does the same thing that she did for Mamoru, consulting the fish tank saying something in Korean about the healing power of nature. The others in the room record her statement and replay it to Sae at differing times over and over again so that it floods her ears and her mind, breaking her down. Everyone is crying except for Minjung; she is serene, thanking mmm as the others smile and applaud. Still crying, Sae thanks them all.
Mioki goes to his apartment to find Takazawa waiting for him. Mioki begs for three more days to get the money. Takazawa notes that Mioki had already sold his kidneys and his family registration. How is he going to get cash? Mioki just says that he will borrow it, but Takazawa wonders who would lend him money. He speculates that things would be different had Mioki had a daughter to pimp out and, to his credit, Mioki does not say that he has one.
Minjung is at the bar with a couple of friends. One of them seems to be inching towards the realization that she has a sex addiction, but Minjung and the other one seem to find her chronic promiscuousness to be hilarious. Perhaps God’s Water could help her out, but Minjung says that it is too much work. Her friends joke that Minjung is like a Shaman like Aum. Aum Shinrikyo? Eesh, that’s a reference. But her grandmother was a shaman in Korea; a Shimbang. Minjung even saw her taking part in ceremonies several times when she was a child. Maybe that means she has the blood of a shamaness in her, even if her mother did not do anything like that.
It is morning and Mikio is in the forest, pointing a pistol at some guy. Who is it? It doesn’t matter; all that matters is that Takazawa wants Mikio to kill this guy. He cannot do it. So Takazawa takes his pistol out and shoots the guy. Mikio is so shocked that he drops the pistol that he was holding, which the man grabs and shoots Takazawa. Takazawa shoots the man five more times before falling down. Mikio screams and runs off through woods.
Eventually, Mikio gets tired and sits down. Suddenly, he sees an apparition of Hyejung, his wife and Minjung’s mother, standing by a tree. He tells her that none of this would have happened had she stayed alive. He tells her that Minjung is no good. And like that, Hyejung disappears. Mikio screams and cries. His life is a disaster.
Minjung and Mina are in a corporate meeting room with Akao, scriptwriter Sasauchi, and…I guess research guy Fumito. Akao wants to expand the brand even further, even further, coming up with a ceremony that no one has seen before. Fumito finds video footage of this year’s Yeongdeung-Kut ceremony on Jeju Island. It is the kind of thing that Minjung saw as a kid; even the place looks familiar. Mina theorizes that her grandmother took part in these ceremonies.
Mioki has found his way to one of the oracle sessions and has been sitting quietly in the back of the room. As Fumito guides Mioki to the office, Mamoru introduces Minjung to his mother, Yoshie, who has trouble keeping still. Minjung kindly offers to help, and Yoshie mumbles that she had come because her son said that she could help. Then Yoshie angrily clarifies that Mamoru had been going on and on and on about God’s Water, so she pretty much felt compelled to come. Miyazawa Yuta and Yoriko, a couple who have been with the group since the fortune teller days, introduce themselves to Yoshie, seemingly unbothered by how agitated she has become.
Minjung goes to meet her father, who is outside with Muba. Minjung demands that he leave, while Mina tries a more diplomatic approach. Minjung says that he has not place to live, and offers to work at God’s Water if he can live here. No one else will know that he is Minjung’s father, and it will seem like she is simply helping some random homeless guy. Mina takes some cash out of her wallet and, over Minjung’s objections, gives it to Mioki so that he can find a place to stay for the night.
Minjung and Akao go out for drinks at a restaurant. Akao tells her that it is up to her where the direction of God’s Water goes, as the operation would fall apart without her, but would do fine without him. He says that he simply wants the religion to grow, to help as many people as possible. Minjung does not believe him. He responds by saying that she is getting more beautiful every day, as if the pain of others is nurturing her. He tries to proposition her, and…it is unclear whether she accepts or rejects him.
One morning, Minjung travels from her home to the God’s Water office, arriving earlier than usual and doing a little private prayer to the fish tank. She walks through the place to find her father asleep on the floor. Apparently, Fumito and another employee named Nao let him stay there. And it had been going since Minjung and Mina last noticed his arrival a month ago? Mina and Minjung say that this is the last time. Mioki argues that he cannot make do on handouts, that he needs real money.
Minjung orders Fumito to escort Mioki out, but the arrival of other members puts a halt to that. Apparently, they are also familiar with Mioki, whom they call Micky. And he knows them. Micky acts like everything is fine. Suddenly, Yoshie bursts in, accusing them of hiding her son from her and threatening them with a knife. Whether it is bravery or trauma at the possibility of seeing more death, a tearful Mioki begs Yoshie not to kill anyone. She drops the knife and they embrace, both crying loudly. Fumito then simply says to Minjung that it is Turing-Kut.
Speaking of Mioki’s trauma, Takazawa is still alive and assaulting some other guy, when his injury causes him to pause. Two henchmen, a Black man and a teenage boy, come to see if he is okay. Gee, the Black man, offers to take over the beatdown, and Takazawa responds by hitting Gee in the head with a pipe for giving him orders. This is the movie, folks.
The Faithful go around the city with flyers for the live internet broadcast of the Turing-Kut Korean Healing Ritual, handing them out to people, stuffing them in mailboxes, putting them up on walls.
Minjung goes to a one of her mother’s Korean childhood friends to get help practicing the routine. Though Minjung says that she still does not know what to do, the friend tells her that there is no fixed structure, and that she has her grandmother’s gift; she just needs to do it and it will work.
Minjung goes to a music store to buy a CD of Korean traditional music. Takazawa’s teenage minion sees her and follows her out of the store. She notices him and turns around to confront him. It’s friggin’ Shinji. So, they walk together. He asks her whether she is going to exorcise Mamoru’s mother. Apparently, Mamoru was his senior in school. Shinji says that Mamoru was weird for a while, but seems okay now, and that he really respects Minjung. Minjung thinks that he is joshing her, but he promises to keep his mouth shut. About what? About nothing. Anyways, Minjung offers to treat him for dinner, jokingly reasoning that hanging out with a dumb Junior High school kid will help her get over her own worries. How do they know each other?
Mina is on the balcony, looking over some reports when Akao comes over and acts really handsy. Mina is more annoyed than anything, but they both look up to see Minjung looking down on them from the roof. Akao smirks while Mina climbs up the ladder. The fish tank and all of the other items are up here now, and Minjung is praying to it. Mina sits next to her and asks whether girls can be “hole brothers” too. Minjung thinks so, but tells Mina to be careful. Mina says that she learned from watching Minjung in the past. Well, I guess that Akao is fair game or something.
Meanwhile, Akao and Fumito have a little chat. Fumito states that the Turing-kut will be the thing that he was looking for, the ceremony that no one (in this city) has ever seen; is part exorcism rite, part psychiatric treatment. He then asks Akao why he is working here. Akao says that he was fed up with advertising and wanted to try something new. Yes, he is advertising God’s Water, but he chose to do it as opposed to the advertising company making him. Fumito is a little unsure about thinking of this as a product, and Akao argues that it is not a product, which is why he loves it. He doesn’t mention his lusting after both Minjung and Mina.
Turing-kut Time. There are the streaming flags, bowls of fruits, and a stereo. Meanwhile, Yuta, Yoriko, and Mamoru are trying to hold a screaming Yoshie still. Only Mioki can calm her down, if only briefly. In any case, they are broadcasting live. The internet comments are incredulous. This is weird. Is this a cult? Who are these people?
Minjung stands up and Fumito starts the music. As the percussion rings out, Minjung walks around Yoshie, jumping up and down, spinning around while holding knives. Yoshie is still screaming in despair, but at least she is sitting in one place as Minjung continues for who knows how long. The internet comments become more impressed. Or at least the naysayers have left, leaving only the ones ready to believe. It feels good. She’s really cute. Like a Goddess! Wow! Amazing! It’s deep. Like! Someone please tell me who she is. It’s like getting high. I want to join.
Eventually, Yoshie quiets down until her scream is barely a whimper. Is it because she actually has calmed down or because Minjung has gotten awfully close to her with those knives? Has Minjung finally healed Yoshie? That is not important. What is important is that the video has reached more people. And if even a few dozen show up to join, then it will have been a success.
Well, a few dozen do. And then more than a few dozen. The normal room where the normal ritual takes place is practically filled up. The promotion was a success. Things can only go up from here.
I honestly did not know what to expect with this movie. And even as it was going, I was not sure what to expect. The movie touches on some serious and bleak subject matter, but mixes them in with some goofy story elements thrown in. And both are given the same straightforward treatment. Additionally, the movie usually plays like a leisurely-paced slice of life movie except there are fast-moving montages, a few jarring cuts to different scenes, and one flashback that starts with no indication that it is a flashback. As such, the movie managed to take me on a wild ride even while it moved casually towards I did not know what.
Granted, that may not be towards everyone’s taste. After all, a movie having protagonists be a group of people scamming psychologically vulnerable individuals is probably going to hit on some nerves even if it did not delve into edgy territory just for kicks. And…maybe sometimes the movie does. I am not sure how I feel about the big sequence towards the end, for example. Like…maaaybe it could have been handled differently.
That said, the movie does seem to hint at a larger theme of how people use each other. For sure, Mina and Minjung started this whole thing just to get money from people, but how is that different from other businesses? They do what they do to make money. And as their business grows, their goal remains the same, to make money. And it remains strictly a business. With mundane meetings and status reports and interoffice drama and whatnot. To be sure, they are under no illusions that they are managing a cult and throw that word around casually when not within earshot of the faithful. Still, it is strictly a business. They do not make their members commit acts of violence or sexual debauchery. They do not really make them do anything but confess their stories of hardship and their darkest thoughts to a group of people. And then pay money.
What do the members get in return for their payment? Peace of mind. Perhaps they wanted to unload the burden of their fears, resentments, and grim desires without the fear of judgment. Perhaps they wanted to be told that things would be all right. Perhaps they just wanted to cry it out. Perhaps they wanted some form of catharsis. Is that what they needed? Absolutely not. A few of them need professional psychological help while others just need help easing the burden of daily obligations. God’s Water is not going to provide them that. At best, it is a placebo. At worst, it exacerbates the problems while creating new ones. Yet, they continue to stay and give because continuing to stay and give makes them feel as if they are getting better. And if that feeling is genuine, what does it matter whether the whole thing is fake? If the feeling is genuine, then it is worth the money. Business.
And what of Minjung? Akao may disagree, but Minjung is the product. She dons the outfit and recites Sasauchi’s script. She is the centerpiece. She is the face; she is the voice of water. Just as she uses these vulnerable people to extract money from them, so is she being used by them for emotional stability. And Akao uses her too, all of the people do. And she is fine with this until she becomes less so.
A big part of this movie centers on Minjung’s Korean identity. It is useful to note that the actor who portrays her is the daughter of Korean immigrants and she speaks Korean fluently. So, while her spoken Korean may be heavily accented, it is nevertheless authentic as opposed to phonetically learned for this particular movie. The movie is not particularly concerned with the Korean experience in Japan in general, so there is nothing regarding discrimination against Koreans or the Korean schools that have been a target of controversy. And it rather blatantly sidesteps talking about the oppression of the Motherland during the Imperial Occupation. But the movies focuses more on how that identity relates to Minjung personally and how she presents it to others.
It is unclear whether the decision to start a fortune-telling business stemmed from discussion about Minjung’s shaman grandmother or whether that became a rationalization after the fact. In any case, Minjung seems to be largely separated from her fellow Koreans, at least within her family. So her relation to her heritage is, at least initially, primarily for the business. Perhaps she believes that the Korean tradition has spiritual powers; perhaps not. Perhaps she does, perhaps not. It does not really matter to her…at least not at first.
Minjung being Korean is the selling point of God’s Water. She is foreign. She is exotic. She is a window into an ancient primal primitive past when humanity, nature, and the spirits were harmoniously intertwined. Imperial Japan brutalized the Korean people and desecrated their culture; now modern Japan looks to a surviving piece of Korean tradition in the hopes of escaping from their lives of despair. And, yes, that is being crafted by a bunch of Japanese people, even the Korean words that she says. But that is of little issue. The Japanese members find safety in unloading their burdens upon this outsider, though one who seems safe, and inviting. Spiritual. Cultural. Bereft of direction, they find something to believe in. Do you get me? Am I being too subtle?
Minjung may be getting in touch with her Korean side in a cynically superficial manner, but it also helps her out. It allows her to recall her grandmother as well as her mother, even though her mother had nothing to do with any shaman rituals. It particularly helps when her father returns to her life. If Minjung had inherited anything from her father, it was the need for money. And while Minjung may have found her calling bilking poor saps, Mikio tries to leech off of her. His presence could jeopardize the entire operation. Not only would it damage her reputation as someone who helps others, it would also call into question her Korean identity. Regardless of her life outside of God’s Water, she has to put forth an air of mystique within the operation.
As the project leans further and into Korean ceremonial practices, it starts to get to Minjung as well. Yeah, she might have some pangs of guilt at fleecing these suckers, but she is also starting to feel shame about sullying her heritage, particularly her grandmother, even though she did not know her that well. The notion that she is a fraud starts to bother her more and more. But rather than make her own confession to her flock of believers, she considers making efforts to make it as authentic as possible, maybe even real. Is she falling for her own hype? Is she trying to exorcise her own demons? Or is she really trying to transform what was initially a scam into something genuine? In any case the reality of her life starts to catch up with her, she herself tries to retreat into the part of herself that the outside world of Japan has denied her.
That causes some friction between her and the rest of the team. Mina is concerned for her as a friend, but does not understand the depths of the problem. Fumito might understand, but only on an intellectual level. Akao does not care one way or another as long as the problem does not hurt the cash flow. The others, simply do not understand. Minjung can bring happiness to so many troubled people, yet no one else can rescue her from her own legacy of trauma and grief. What started as a minor scheme by two friends to get some quick cash has grown into a corporation that is beyond the both of them, where neither of them are still really in charge. Despite remaining the center of this corporation, Minjung has severely lost much of her agency. When she tries to reclaim some of that, it creates problems.
The movie may present the main characters somewhat sympathetically, but does not ask us to sympathize with them or to rationalize their actions. Just as with nature. The characters may treat nature as bringing peace, but nature seems rather apathetic. Neither nature nore the movie seem to particularly care what we think of what is going on. That does sometimes lead to writing decisions that…well…leave a bit of a sour taste. But if you are okay to get on the ride, you may have an interesting trip.
WTF ASIA 124: Sunflower (China: 2005, approx. 132 minutes)
Available…erm…online…but you may need to find subtitles separately.
WTF ASIA 125: Oasis (South Korea: 2002, approx. 133 minutes)