The psychological impact of death on an individual is significant. When it comes to the death of someone with blood ties, such as a family member, the impact is often much more severe. The fact that each country retains unique rituals for sending off the dead indicates that such rituals serve as a vehicle to soften the blow of death. Despite the significant differences identified in each country’s ritual, the most important common elements are the time, space, and procedure of such rituals. While the unexpected parting with the deceased compels the living to feel the transience of life, that is why it is all the more meaningful to grant a certain period of time for bidding farewell while mourning the death. It is likely that Korean funerals last for three days because it was deemed that at least three days are required to properly part with the deceased. In Buddhism, the mourning period lasts for 49 days after death as a process intended to help the deceased to make their journey into the afterlife, but the time is also used to allow those left behind to move forward in their grief.
Space also takes on a special meaning. It is generally in a specially dedicated space for grieving, as opposed to a space used in daily life, that people say goodbye to the deceased by bowing down before a photograph of the deceased. As family members who lead separate lives gather together for the funeral, they catch up on each other’s lives, reaffirm their relationships with each other through the deceased as a medium, and even resolve longstanding resentments. In this regard, a funeral venue represents a space with different rules than those of everyday life. This is the kind of space in which funeral rituals are performed. The traditional Korean funeral rituals illustrated in the film Festival are quite different from their present-day counterparts. Although the characters in the film seem familiar like our neighbors, it is difficult to understand the process in which the deceased is sent off.
The funeral proceeds in the following steps: chojong (初終), accepting and confirming the death; seumnyeom (襲殮), bathing and dressing the dead body; chijang (治葬), burying or cremating the body; and hyungje (凶祭), an ancestral rite held at the end of the funeral procedure. This process is aptly depicted in the film Festival, directed by Im Kwon-taek, as a final step to mourn the deceased and bid solemn farewell.
The process of sending off the deceased also gives new meaning to those left behind. The deceased serves as a medium for the living to reflect on their wounds, think of the people around them who are connected to such wounds, and gain the power to live on while healing from the wounds. Directed by Im Kwon-taek, one of Korea’s most renowned film directors, Festival is a masterpiece that masterfully conveys the meaning of death. Through the various characters that the protagonist, renowned writer Jun-seop (Ahn Sung-ki), encounters while tending to his mother’s funeral, the film shows that we all have wounds and that healing these wounds is more necessary than anything else in our lives. The fact that the protagonist finds this healing process through his mother’s funeral implies that bereavement is not entirely a negative experience.
The children’s story that unfolds separately to the funeral within the film describes the process in which a grandmother gradually reverts back to being a young child, which is depicted as her “giving away her years.” This ultimately symbolizes the sharing of a mother’s love, as the protagonist’s mother made even her funeral into a joyous event like a festival for her children.
The reason why the film was titled Festival is that the funeral serves as a place where wounds are healed through a person’s death, old and pent-up tensions are resolved, and family members reaffirm their blood ties. Although the protagonist initially regards his mother’s funeral as an occasion solely for grieving and parting, it suddenly becomes a kind of festival upon his realization that exposing the pain that existed in the corner of one’s heart and allowing the wounds caused by it to heal under the sun. “Life, Death, and Feast for Those Left Behind,” the subtitle written on the film poster captures the theme of the film. We are destined to encounter both life and death throughout our lives. In the course of sending off a loved one in the face of death, we are sure to gain the power to go on living again. This process is the festival and feast that the film seeks to document.
The film is particularly intriguing as it deals with the theme of traditional Korean funeral rituals, which are rare today. Most Koreans today meet their death in hospital and their farewell ceremony is held at a modern-style funeral home. However, it was only around 30 years ago that funeral rituals were commonly held in private homes where the deceased lived for their entire lives. This is why the film presents the backdrop of the village and houses where the deceased’s family members and villagers gather in a sorrowful, yet inexplicably lively atmosphere. At the funeral, some guests engage in gambling, while some steal condolence money and others drink to the point of passing out. This demonstrates the chaotic nature of a funeral as a place where life and death meet. Estranged family members rejoice upon being reunited, whereas old resentments erupt as death serves as a medium that exposes everything.
The time of a wake where guests stay up all night and enjoy themselves at this intersection of life and death does not represent the time of everyday life under the light of the sun, but rather a time outside of everyday life where darkness takes over and sends off the remains of the day until the dawn of a new day. As the old day passes and the new day arrives, it is time for our lives to continue and move on from death, which is the implicit significance of the time of the funeral. Staying awake through the night is not simply the act of spending time together, but rather a ritual that gives the power to create a new time for a new life.
The film features gulgeonjebok, the traditional mourner’s attire of Korea, which is rarely worn today. For this attire, men wear dugeon, a headcloth traditionally made of hemp, and sanggwan, a hairband used to fix the dugeon, while women wear a piece of cloth on their head along with sanggwan. Both men and women wear mourning attire made of hemp and hold a bamboo stick. The completed ensemble is called gulgeonjebok. In the film, the children of the deceased dress in this traditional mourning attire, which represents the notion that they are sinners to their parents and must fulfill their filial duties. The film describes the process of traditional funeral rituals in detail, including the processes of bathing and dressing the deceased, laying the deceased in a coffin, carrying out the bier to the burial ground, and digging the grave. As it would make this text rather long and tedious to describe each process in detail, it would be better to learn the process of traditional Korean funerals by watching the film.
The film reaches its crescendo at a scene where the family has a group photograph taken after the end of the funeral. Family members gather around to have their photographs taken at the request of a reporter who came to write a story on the protagonist. This scene represents the transformation of the funeral into a festival and the healing of the family’s wounds at last, as Yeong-sun (Oh Jung-hae), who carries the most pain and finds it difficult to mingle with the family, feels a sense of belonging within the family by joining the family photograph. As they allow themselves to be captured by a photograph, they become united as one family. They burst into laughter as a mourner quips, “Why so glum? Did someone die?” This shows the family’s new beginning as they strive to overcome sorrow and continue with their lives in the immediate aftermath of the funeral.
The Korean people have meticulously observed funeral and ancestral rituals through the ages, even in times of hardship. It was likely difficult to send off and commemorate the dead in times when the living were undergoing myriad hardships. However, such rituals allowed the Korean people to gain a new appreciation of the time given to them while reflecting on their lives and resolving to begin new lives. As they resolved long-held resentment and grudge, they moved from conflict to reconciliation, from dispute to understanding. This demonstrates the unique ability of the Korean people to sublimate a mourning ritual into a merry feast. Director Im Kwon-taek’s Festival not only thoroughly documents traditional Korean funeral rituals, but also presents the opportunity to understand their significance. In this regard, the film constitutes a piece of digital heritage, whose content provides insight into rituals of life of the Korean people.
Contributed by Hong Tae-han, a research professor of Jeonbuk National University and member of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee of the Cultural Heritage Administration