Monday, September 29, 2008

Review – Why Has Bodhi-Darma Left for the East?

September 29, 2008

Why Has Bodhi-Darma Left for the East? – South Korea, 1989

Toward the end of Yong-Kyun Bae’s Why Has Bodhi-Darma Left for the East? an elderly monk passes away. As per his wishes, a younger monk named Kibong burns his body and pounds what remains of it into dust. Kibong then sets about spreading the dust, first dropping some into a creek. Eventually, he has spread his master’s ashes on bushes, trees, and sand and into the air. Essentially, the master is now everywhere, and yet he is also nowhere, for the form of the master that we recognize is gone. Before I go on, I have something to confess. I do not completely understand what I have just written.

Why Has Bodhi-Darma Left for the East? tells the story of three people at different stages of understanding and life. First, there’s Haejin (Hae-Jin Huang), a young boy just beginning to understand the basic tenants of Buddhism. Like other children his age, he is filled with curiosity, but the answers he gets to his questions could not be more different. In response to his inquiry as to why they live so far away from others, he is told that there are three levels: them, the lower temple, and the world. When he asks why they have all left the world, he is told that the world has no peace or freedom of the heart and that people in the world are too full of the idea of Self. These concepts make my head spin, so I can’t imagine how a child could understand them, and yet it appears that young Haejin is close to doing so. However, he is still a child with the same impulses and needs that other children have – he craves companionship and is attached to worldly objects.

Then there’s Kibong (Sin-Won Sop), a monk who appears to be in his twenties. As the film begins, Kibong is undergoing a personal crisis, struggling with the notion that in order to seek enlightenment, he abandoned the family he had a moral obligation to care for. Perhaps to refocus his attention, his Master gives him a Koan (a riddle). It goes like this: “If you free the moon inside you, it will light up the sky and the earth, and its light will chase away all of the shadows of the universe. When the moon takes over in your heart, where does the Master of my being go?” Not even this extremely difficult task can distract him from his guilt, and his later visit to his mother only adds additional weight to his already heavy heart. Last, there’s the Master (Yi Pan-Yong), a man who has presumably already passed the stages of inquisitiveness and self-doubt. Still insisting on working in spite of his old age and declining health, the Master is simultaneously preparing himself for death and rebirth and nudging the two younger monks in the right direction with riddles and observations that they are to ponder over and solve.

Much of what has been written about Bae’s film has focused on its cinematography and lyricism. Some reviews have even called the film plotless. From what I have written above, it should be clear that I disagree with the latter comment. And while the film is visually stunning, it was the film’s lessons that resonated most with me, and my head is still echoing several of its ideas, for instance, “That thing that does not come into being does not die” and it is only when we lose what we love that we feel pain. I was also startled by the implication that by following his religious goals Kibong had inadvertently caused pain and suffering to those he left behind. As I said at the beginning of this review, I cannot state that I entirely comprehend the ideas and philosophies that the characters in this film deal with on a daily basis. However, it is a powerfully moving experience to watch characters grapple with them. Why Has Bodhi-Darma Left for the East? is indeed an unforgettable event. (on DVD from Image-Entertainment and Milestone Pictures)

4 stars

*Why Has Bodhi-Darma Left for the East? is in Korean with English subtitles.

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