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'Exhuma' and Feng Shui

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Actor Choi Min-shik plays geomancer Sang-deok in the film 'Exhuma.' Courtesy of Showbox

Actor Choi Min-shik plays geomancer Sang-deok in the film "Exhuma." Courtesy of Showbox

By Shim Jae-yun

The 2024 Korean occult-themed film "Exhuma" has become the first movie to hit the 10 million viewership in Korea this year. Besides Korea, the film has also been captivating global audiences transcending cultural borders. It is resonating deeply, especially in South East Asia as well as in North America, and is poised to open in India, Turkey and Russia. In Laos and Cambodia, it has become the No. 1 Korean film in history.

Key to the film's resonance is the exploration of Feng Shui principles, underlining the Korean belief in the interconnectedness of the living and the deceased with a focus on the intricate dynamics of ancestral reverence and familial neglect.

Behind the global boom also are the universal concept of post-death narratives coupled with the unique Korean way of exhuming the graves of their ancestors to be moved to a better place.

Exhumation is closely related to the theory of Feng Shui (or geomancy.) In Feng Shui, Yang houses ("yangtaek") are places where the living reside, while Yin houses ("eumtaek") refer to final resting places for the dead.

"Exhuma" is a narrative about a pro-Japanese figure who left his children a huge amount of wealth. Ashamed of their ancestor, his descendants never pay their respects at his tomb, located in a difficult-to-reach mountainous area. Feeling neglected by his offspring, the ghost of this narrow-minded betrayer of the fatherland hunts them down and attempts to kill them.

Feng Shui is now gaining more global recognition in fields like architecture, interior design and environmental psychology. In Feng Shui, "myeongdang" refers to the concept of an auspicious or favorable spot replete with good energy flow and a harmonious environment. As noted in the film, most of these places across the country seem to have already been saturated over the peninsula's thousands of years of history.

The contemporary concept of myeongdang needs to be modified to reflect the rapidly shifting living environment. It should refer to the places where people are happy to live. For the sick, for instance, there should be hospitals nearby. The location should be able to satisfy the needs of the residents in terms of schools and convenience facilities and traffic, crucial to determining the prices of modern houses and apartments.

According to Feng Shui, one's late ancestors may affect familial destiny while their remains are still in the grave, regardless of good or bad influence. In the film, the pro-Japanese ghost's remorse ends with his remains being burned. In this vein, they say cremation has neither a good nor bad impact on offspring.

Coincidentally enough, I took part in our families' ceremony for exhumation two weeks after I saw this film. It was a gravesite honoring multiple generations of my ancestors — my great great grandmother, great grandparents and grandparents. The oldest tomb is more than 100 years old while the newest one is for my grandfather who was laid to rest 50 years ago.

As the eldest grandson, I felt sorry for the ancestors for having failed to pay tribute to them properly though I visited them almost every year to weed the graves with my relatives. While offering ceremonial glasses of wine to them, I became emotional and tearful as I still remember the warm affection they gave to me when I was a young boy.

Our families decided to exhume the tombs as it became almost impossible to continue maintaining the graves. We thought it had got to a point and the ancestors would feel no regret as we had visited them for more than 50 years.

In a poignant memory, some years ago, my younger brother was in a serious accident while weeding the graves. He was ferociously attacked by a swarm of bees. Without emergency treatment and help from a nearby house, which had been built just years earlier, my brother might have died. Some 15 years ago, one of my uncles died after a bee entered his ear.

Upon completing the exhumation, we extended our gratitude to the ancestors and wished eternal peace for them. Though without notable fortunes, we expressed gratitude for the absence of major misfortunes.

In the concept of myeongdang, the surrounding environment and location is significant in determining the fate of humans. Yet what is more important is that such fate can be changed depending on willpower and efforts of the persons concerned. It suggests that while we are influenced by external forces, we possess the agency to carve our own paths and shape our destinies.

Some Buddhist temples are said to have selected bad land purposely to turn the surroundings into auspicious locations through strenuous endeavors, offering support for the needy and expanding facilities.

In this vein, the concept of Feng Shui is closely aligned with to the principles in the "Book of Changes," which prioritizes human will ahead of fateful factors, in accordance with dates of births, for instance.

The book defines humans as holy beings bestowed with a unique mission from the heavens. Instead of being influenced by fate, it cites the importance of taking initiative in one's own life.

The author is chief editorial writer of The Korea Times.

Shim Jae-yun


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