WHY HAS BODHI-DHARMA LEFT FOR THE EAST? (1989)
A meditation on Zen principles, reluctant filmmaker Bae Yong-kyun frames the beauty of the wilderness in the search for human meaning
While South Korean cinema today enjoys international releases and regular global film festival screenings, there were several decades in the wilderness.
Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? was one of the first films to make a significant splash overseas, competing in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and becoming the first South Korean film to receive a US theatre release in 1993, a run which started in New York and spread to 30 stateside cities.
Even more intriguing is the man behind the film, Dongguk University professor and painter Bae Yong-kyun, who spent seven years making the film, editing it by hand to its completion.
The film centres on three Buddhist monks, orphan boy Hae-jin, young monk Ki-bong and Zen master Hye-gok.
While Hae-jin finds himself as a guardian to an injured bird, Ki-bong is still making sense of his spirtual direction, while Hye-gok knows the secret of everlasting peace and lives the life of a satisfied recluse.
As Hye-gok's health deteriorates, Ki-bong heads into town to get him medicine. However, Hye-gok has instead accepted his fate, “it is time to rid myself of this body. It has done me well.”
The journey into town turns Ki-bong's head, sparking a desire to return to society, a goal that finds him reprimanded by Hye-gok.
Despite these narrative developments, they are not the central thrust of this work. It is more a mediation, an examination of Buddhism and the meaning of life. To these goals the plot devices are secondary.
The film is about Zen, but it also sends the audience into their own state of Zen, as they slip into a two-and-a-half-hour dream state of contemplation.
The film’s title is not directly addressed in the film, but is a reference to Bodhidharma, a 5th or 6th century Buddhist monk who pushed Zen in China.
The painting experience of Director Bae is visible throughout. It is a film that can be paused at almost any place and a frame of exquisite artistic beauty fills the screen.
It opens up several philosophical questions, chiefly through the Zen koans of ‘what was my original face before my mother and father were conceived?’ and ‘[in death] where does the master of my being go?’.
Considering he had created one of the defining films of South Korean cinema and alerted the world to its appeal, Bae made just one other film, the 1995 The People in White about a man released from a mental asylum returning to the village of his birth.
It was not from lack of opportunity that Bae took this route though. Media buzz and big studio offers did nothing to move him as he maintained a private life, content that in this labour of love he had achieved enough in film already.
The film is also undeniably a huge influence on Kim Ki-duk's 2003 masterpiece Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, which is about a Buddhist monastery floating on a lake in a remote forest.
It is hard not to ponder what Bae could have achieved if he had accepted those studio offers, but we can still be grateful to have a film of such enigmatic beauty and emotional depth. A film we will be revisiting for decades to come.