A trio of monks reflect on the hard questions in Bae Yong-kyun’s quiet, reflective piece.
“There is no beginning and no end. Nothing is immutable, everything changes. That thing which does not come into being does not die.”
I went into many of the films of this year’s London Korean Film Festival with no expectations, having read very few of the synposes of what was playing. Nevertheless, it was always somewhat simple enough to guess based on titles or genre. Going in blind, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Why has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? is perhaps a period piece about the monk in question. However, the title, much like the rest of the film, exists as a sort of zen riddle without any answer.
It concerns itself with the life of three monks: young orphaned boy Hae-jin (Huang Hae-jin), young monk Ki-bong (Sin Won-sop) and Hye-gok, an elderly master (Yi Pan-yong). The boy is full of questions about life, and spends a lot of his time exploring and getting to understand nature. Ki-bong, however, has joined the monastery after fleeing a life he didn’t want and feels guilty about it, spending the majority of the movie wrestling with these emotions, and Hye-gok now understands his place in the world, and that his time is limited.
And that’s basically it. Why has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? is very light on story, choosing to walk the fine line between dream and reality instead. What works is that it never hits you over the head with it, choosing instead to play it subtly, letting the plot unfold at a natural pace, like the slow blossoming of a flower. It speaks in metaphors, using minimalism to its advantage to let you fill in the blanks and get lost in thought. Along with its title, the movie throws two more koans at us: what were we before we were born, and what happens to our being after we die? It never answers those questions of course, but it does allow us to consider them.
Bodhi-Dharma is a beautifully-rendered production, and director Bae Yong-kyun’s career as a painter really shines through with his work behind the camera. Here, he treats the frame as a canvas, letting shots linger so we can fully appreciate the fine details of both nature and the scene. The technique is effective because it forces the audience to take their time, and it results in this meditative experience where the story is only about fifty percent of the point of this.
Because Bodhi-Dharma is a long film. Depending on your release, you could be in front of this thing for three or more hours. And unlike a big action film of that length (see Mission Impossible 6), which uses chases and fights to keep you hooked, or thrillers like The Wailing which rely on growing tension, Bodhi-Dharma instead opts to let its scenery do the talking. The point of these films is always to make the audience feel like they’re right there with the protagonists, and the effect is in full swing here.
Production on this film took seven years and the monastic levels of patience shows here. Using only natural lighting, hand editing techniques and a single camera, the making of this film would make for just an interesting and equally contemplative feature as the picture itself. Because this is the sort of production that you can’t rush. It’s the careful camerawork and attention to detail, as well as the way the visuals compliment the key questions and messages, and how it it’s all able to present in a visual medium something intangible that makes it such a fascinating and pleasantly surprising watch.
Verdict: Slow-paced, but perfectly poignant, Why has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? asks the right questions, and leaves the answers up to you.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Fire: Also everywhere
City life: Looks kinda crap. Back to the monastery!
Why has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989)
Also known as: 달마가 동쪽으로 간 까닭은?
Director: Bae Yong-kyun
Writer: Bae Yong-kyun
Sin Won-sop – Ki-bong
Huang Hae-jin – Hae-jin
Yi Pan-yong – Hye-gok