Two women journey through life, Korea and their own spirituality in Im Kwon-taek’s meditative, thoughtful drama.
“You have your own way. I have my own way.”
A lot of people turn to religion when things become hard, or when life decides to completely turn on you. But rarely do the lessons, the ideas and beliefs stick once things get better. For two Korean women, facing hardships and crises, Buddhism becomes a home they long to return to – and one, they can only hope will accept them with open arms. Come, Come, Come Upward, Im Kwon-taek’s pseudo follow-up to his other Buddhism movie Mandala, is something of exploration of these themes.
Im’s story is steeped in religious and divine philosophy but is interested in more than the questions asked by Buddhism: its focus is in fact on the answers given by its two main characters. There is Lee Soon-nyeo (Kang Soo-yeon), a teenage girl who, by the time she is expelled from school and flees to a monastery, has been through a lot – most recently having spent some time travelling with her new teacher, a widower with whom she shared the bond she lacked when her father left to (presumably) join the priesthood. Secondly is Jin-sung, the Sister Superior’s aide, whose time in the monastery has made her a perfect nun, but one that hasn’t quite learned how to interpret texts or ask questions in her own way.
Both are guided by the Sister to follow their own paths, which ultimately have them both leave the monastery, for brief periods of time. Jin-sung is hounded by a political writer for some time, and during a time spent living in a mountain is accosted by a drunken monk. Meanwhile, Soon-nyeo helps a drunken, suicidal man, and due to his constant harassment, she is sent away from the convent and vows to help him – a vow which sends her life in another wild direction.
While Come Upward (as it will be referred to from now) has two main characters, its focus is largely on Soon-nyeo, and Kang really delivers. Working in tandem with Han Sung-won’s script, she creates a layered, complex character whose sufferings make her the headstrong nun she starts out as, and the one her sister superior takes a liking to. Her strong character combined with the resolve she learnt in the monastery gives her the drive to travel, and move on from tragedy after tragedy. On the flip side Jin-sung only really experiences what Soon-nyeo does later in her career, and that’s where Im’s story really work: in showing how we perceive and accept the world can change who we are.
In Come Upward, the world is split into two realms: the spiritual world where Soon-nyeo flees and the harsh, modern “real” world where is forced into time and time again. Im Kwon-taek makes a clear decision to further emphasise the split that occurs between the two leads, and the way the harsh realities of life have changed their personal philosophies. But more than that, it’s a study on the status of women in Korea at the time. It uses its characters’ compelling, rich stories to raise questions about both the utility of Buddhism in society, and about how women are treated and viewed.
Come Upward, ultimately, is not a film that’s necessarily about Buddhism – at least not in the same way something like Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? was. It’s a lot more personal than that, focusing on the individuals within a temple, as well as the global and political events that shape not only the country they live, but the lives they attempt help. The men in Soon-nyeo’s life best reflect this, but so do the ones that Jin-sung encounters. Their experiences, as well as their personal resolves, leave them at the end of the film in the same place physically, but in other hemispheres spiritually.
Verdict: Thoughtful in its execution and glacial in its pace, Come, Come, Come Upward works as both a simple drama, and an exploration of faith, bolstered by powerhouse performances.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: 2/10, all of a sexual nature
Sex: 2/10, all of a violent nature
Hong: What a sad guy. I hope he’s OK
Unanswered questions: So why did the Dharma have no beard?
Come, Come, Come Upward (1989)
Also known as: Aje aje bara aje
Director: Im Kwon-taek
Writer: Han Sung-won
Kang Soo-yeon – Soon-neyo
Jin Yeong-mi – Jin-sung
Yu In-chon – Hyun Jong
Choi Jong Won