Bae Yong-kyun, a professor at Dogguk University spent ten years as screenwriter, director, cinematographer, and editor of this film, with only the music composed by someone else: Chin Kyn-yong. The result is a unique film for the Korean industry, which was part of the Official Selection of "Un Certain Regard" at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and winner of the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival at the same year. Thus, it marked the first director's award in the history of Korean cinema.
The title comes from the journey of Bodhi-Dharma, the Indian monk considered to be the founder of Zen Buddhism, which started in India and ended in China, in AD 520.
The script revolves around three generations of Buddhist monks, living together in the mountains: Hye-gok is an elderly Zen master who refuses to receive treatment for his illness. Kibong does most of the work, while he struggles with his decision to leave his previous life and dedicate himself to Buddhism, abandoning his sister and his blind mother. Hae-jin is an orphaned boy that Hye-gok has adopted.
Implementing a very serene pace, Bae focuses the film on two parallel levels, the actual, and the unseen. The second one is presented through Hye-gok's teachings, upon which he has based his life: existence is nothing but a dream and the material world is nothing but irrelevant. The only activity that matters in life is meditation, the only way of finding the 'roots of enlightenment' that lead to the greater light above.
The first level is presented through the actual lives of the three monks, as they struggle to break all earthly ties. Hye-gok acknowledges his failure to this task, since the adoption of Hae-jin proves that he also needs human interaction. Kibong fears that he is a failure because he has not severed his ties with the world, as it becomes evident in a trip of his to the city, when he cannot resist paying a visit to his mother's house. Hae-jin still learns the realities of the real world, while the episode where he injures a bird and the subsequent consequences torment him terribly.
Bae Yong-kyun uses many symbolisms to portray his thoughts. The ox that escapes only to become lost symbolizes Kibong, as is the case with mist that surrounds the monastery when he leaves. The episode with the bird symbolizes death and the effect it has on people, as is the case the eerie appearance of dancer at a night ceremony. These scenes also highlight the astonishing cinematography of the film, along with the plethora of images of the forest and the ones of light on water and stones, as much as the attention to detail Bae shows in the film.
The general atmosphere of the film, as implemented by the above and the pleasantly minimalistic score of Chin Kyu-young, comprising of chants, bells and the sound of wooden blocks, can also be perceived as a call for meditation, since the film actually functions as one, as a whole.
The performances by Yi Pan-yong as Hye-gok, Sin Wop-sop as Kibong and Hwang Hae-jin as Hae-jin, also move towards the same minimalist and ritualistic path, perfectly fitting the film's general aesthetics.
Evidently, running at 175 minutes and filled with minimalism and implementing a very slow pace, "Why has Bodh-Dharma Left for the East?" is a very difficult film to watch. However, if one can get past these notions, he will discover a true masterpiece, a unique film that signaled the progress of Korean cinema to the whole world.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Available on DVD and streaming from Amazon
DVD US (En Sub)
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[Guest Film Review] "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For The East?""
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