Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?

"Very Good"

Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? Review


This 1989 art house favorite from Korean filmmaker Yong-Kyun Bae is a narrative contradiction: serene enough to be nothing but meditative, but with core ideas that provide a philosophical challenge. So you may choose to let the film just flow, or search further into its Zen existence to find deeper meaning.

Either way, it's impossible to ignore the movie's natural beauty and visual creativity. Bae's debut feature lingers on his thoughtful images, moving slowly and methodically like the deliberate breathing of one of the film's practicing Buddhist monks.

Bodhi-Dharma focuses on three characters living a simple monastic life: an aging Zen master coming to terms with his coming death; his student, a younger man in a desperate search for enlightenment; and a small boy just discovering more complex emotions.

The life in which the trio exists is shot with such careful beauty it could be a collection of images in search of a plot. The young man meditates silently while a rushing waterfall surrounds him. The boy floats in a pond, his own colors creating a connection with the reflection of nearby leaves and rocks. (Water is treated the way Teshigahara shot sand in Woman in the Dunes.) Without over-exaggerating the visual pleasures, I'd be interested in a coffee table novel full of stills from the film.

But the meaning of some scenes is elusive, a difficult reality in a movie of such unorthodox pacing and presentation. Bae, however, is smart to create an early scene of near-universal meaning: The old man pulls out the boy's tooth by wrapping a string around it and giving it a surprisingly quick tug. He does so with a laugh, and the boy is given salt water to rinse and a quick hug. It's the movie's only sign of warmth and humor as we can recognize it in the Western world.

And, as expected, the Eastern way of thinking is everywhere. The film's title is actually a reference to a "koan" -- a riddle intended as a focal point of concentration to those searching for enlightenment. In this case, it is a Buddhist parable asking one to consider the meanings of "leaving" and "arriving," and how those concepts relate to the ideas of belonging and home.

As a central theme, this conundrum is ever-present; which in itself seems to be a contradiction to relinquishing modern life and reaching the Buddhist ideal. The master teaches that giving up all familial ties and conventional trappings allow the soul to live without pain and disappointment. Yet pain exists for the film's characters, be it physical or emotional. So if deciding to "return" to a more complex life is a faster path to understanding, does the idea still apply?

That's the kind of constant questioning and consideration that turn Bodhi-Dharma into a combination of a modern art class, theology lecture, and philosophy discussion, but with few actions and even fewer words.

The 2007 DVD includes 10 minutes of never-before-seen footage -- making the film an even more challenging 145 minutes -- and improved English subtitles. The lack of extras is a disappointment, as some sort of behind-the-scenes look would be a treat for such a mysterious looking film.

Aka Dharmaga tongjoguro kan kkadalgun.



Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?

Facts and Figures

Run time: 137 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 23rd September 1989

Production compaines: Bae Yong-kyun Productions

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 6

IMDB: 7.8 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Yong-Kyun Bae

Producer: Yong-Kyun Bae

Starring: Yi Pan-Yong as Hye-gok, Sin Won-Sop as Ki-bong, Hae-Jin Huang as Hae-jin, Su-Myong Ko as Abbot, Byeong-hui Yun as Ki-bong's mother

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