The opening scenes of "The Gateless Gate" dramatize the legendary historical event that led to the creation of the Zen Buddhist koans of the same name. After the dramatization, "The Gateless Gate" transitions into a documentary depicting eleven practitioners of Korean Buddhism who undergo a ritual inspired by the teachings of those koans. They isolate themselves into a small locked room with an adjoining yard for a thousand days, and spend that time meditating.
Conceptually "The Gateless Gate" has an obvious problem. The monks and nuns take a single meal every day, meditate in their tiny locked room, and occasionally take walks around the same circle in their small backyard. So that's most of what director Park Dae-won-I shows us, is just these people engaging in the same activity repeatedly. The main point of distinction is the changing seasons. These change the composition of the exterior shots, and that's about it.
This is all fundamental to the ritual's purpose, which is for the adherents to appreciate the meaning of existence without change. For one thousand days, their lives are completely free of distractions. Even deteriorating health is of little consequence. That the adherents are all so old is a critical reflection of how highly they value spiritual enlightenment. A lifetime's worth of memories can seem overwhelming, yet in constant solitude, the adherents find peace.
This has as much to do with their state of mind as it does the ritual itself. There's one extended section wherein a monk is forced out his living quarters, because the daily monitors discover that the lock is broken and they're forced to damage the door in order to replace it. We then see where the adherent goes on his day off sabbatical. Nowhere interesting, it turns out. Contrary to being desperate for the creature comforts of normal human life once more, the monk remains effectively detached.
I'm inclined to think of this ritual as the ultimate test in patience. Provided you can commit to those thousand days alone, no other psychological trauma can compare. This comes off as especially genuine when we see the glimmers of the normal daily lives for these monks and nuns, and see how with age they naturally see more suffering, if only in the form of watching friends degrade over the natural passage of time. The unchanging state of the universe, in such context, actually comes off as pretty reasonably comforting.
How well this really works as documentary film, though, I don't really know. I'm not Buddhist, and so can only very vaguely relate to most of the greater spiritual implications discussed here. But for the monks and nuns themselves, these events are clearly of great importance. The epilogue reminds us that, as of this moment, a new set of practitioners has begun the ritual. It's a spooky thought, thinking of all we've done in the last year or two, and knowing that right this minute, some highly dedicated Buddhist nuns and monks have sealed themselves off from the world for the sake of Enlightenment.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Gateless Gate""
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