The introductions "Samsara" gives us to its various monks prove surprisingly worldly. Hye-gyeon (played by Kim Jun-bae) bickers with a woman at a dog meat restaurant over various business matters. Hye-yong (played by Hong Hee-yong) does television appearances. Hye-seung (played by Jung Joon-young-I) is a handsome young star on social media. Yet none of these characters are especially in focus throughout "Samsara", as much of the movie takes place in flashback, going over the relationship between senior monk Hye-jin (played by Kim Myung-gon) and his now elderly master Do-beop (played by Lee Yeong-seok).
The fundamentally dark subtext of "Samsara" is that none of these men are particularly good monks. But at the same time writer/director Moon Jeong-yun is not particularly aggressive about their ethical shortcomings. Indeed, for these ethical shortcomings, all of the monks are fundamentally decent and sympathetic men. They just aren't particularly holy men, and much of their lifestyle seems to just be about going through the motions of being a monk.
The story of Hye-jin growing up is the lynchpin of all this. He's a sad, bullied kid at an orphanage, and Do-beop takes pity on him. We might expect that the story of their relationship would be one of Do-beop helping Hye-jin to find peace with the cruelty of the greater world. Yet that never really happens. Do-beop is mostly diffident to Hye-jin. Sometimes he manages to be hostile. Their time together has few brutal moments, yet even fewer tender ones.
So when Hye-jin in the present day finally meets up with Do-beop again, having obviously not seen the elder monk in quite some time, he is in for a shock but not exactly a surprise. As a child Hye-jin referred to Do-beop as his father, and this is accurate, albeit not in the loving way we generally think of the term. Do-beop was a very aloof parental figure. Do-beop is a monk less due his being holy and more due to the fact that he just prefers being alone most of the time.
It is with twisted irony we see how Hye-jin's spiritual journey of humility quite literally happens outside of Do-beop's influence, even as Do-beop looms large over Hye-jin's life. These bittersweet reminisces on Hye-jin's part make up the bulk of "Samsara" as he tries to replace the mental image of the confused old man that exists today with the legendary mentor of his youth. Hye-jin fails because Do-beop was not in reality much of a legend.
Indeed, Hye-jin's personal failures with his own disciples, which have led them to focus on worldly ideals more than they should, all date back to Hye-jin's simply having had poor original instruction in the monastic life. The dark truth of the overall narrative is only confirmed with the śarīra scene. "Samsara" is not quite as dour as I'm making it sound. There are definite moments of cheer in this story of a failed life. Yet a failed life it was, all the same.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Samsara""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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