color 135 min.
Director: Bae Yong-kyun
CLV: $69.98 - available
2 discs, catalog # CC1438L
It's a measure of the curious greatness of Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? that
the movie's philosophical gists and surface attractions are so intertwined as to be virtually
indivisible. The movie has been celebrated as one of the ten best films of all time in critics'
and directors' polls alike, but just reading the title and the accompanying tag "A Zen Fable"
was enough to keep me away from Bae Yong-kyun's film the first time around. Not that I have a
problem with Zen. It's just that experience teaches that, as a rule, most religious movies are
all religion and no movie.
Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? turns out to be quite an exception to the rule.
Its Zen is a matter not of negation or denial but of physical and formal luxuriance. Yet its
cinematic pull has everything to do with negating or denying the usual narrative opulence of movies.
In the current surge of Asian filmmaking, Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien has made the greatest strides
in articulating an Eastern film aesthetic, launching thematic concerns onto the formal plane.
With one film, Bae catapults himself into Hou's league. The leap isn't quite as ex nihilo as
it may seem. While Hou started out making dumb teen musicals and only gradually gravitated toward
models like traditional Chinese painting, Bae got his chops in an arena which makes sense once
you see the results -- as a teacher of painting.
His film, which contemplates the three inhabitants of a remote monastery, has a visual allure that
feels fastidiously personal, as if applied by hand and sweat of brow. To a large extent, it was.
Bae not only wrote, produced and directed the film, but also shot and edited it. His screenplay
was ten times the normal length, since it registered every camera angle and slight visual nuance;
the shooting took three years, with some shots getting fifty takes; he cut the footage by hand,
without the benefit of an editing table.
I wonıt suggest that Scorsese does exactly the same, but no other American director displays quite
the same sense that each image is both palpable and ineffable -- a visual breath that gains rhythmic
resonance when placed in the proper sequence. In Bae's film, a forest, a pool of water, a ray of
sunlight can sweep us away into an exalted fixation on its intrinsic glories, but only until the
film calls it (and us) back again, into the mysterious patterns of necessity.
Bae doesnıt restrict himself to an austere visual vocabulary. The filmıs first three minutes unfurl all manner of tracking shots, pans, close-ups, lighting plans. What gives the varied manner its concentration is that every shot or sequence is made to stand on its own, detached, however slightly, from the idea of a unifying storyor, for that matter, the idea of an objective universe.
In one early sequence, for example, Bae begins tight on the little Orphan as he stares at a brand
he's pulled from the fire, then hugs his knees and wonders aloud, "At the bottom of the mountain,
is there a temple? And what is there lower down?" An answer to the second question -- "The World" --
soon comes, and leads to a colloquy that continues to find the mystical in the mundane. Meanwhile,
by never showing us the second speaker (the Apprentice), Bae insinuates that the conversation is at
once actual and interior -- a dialogue between the boy and The World.
Bae's method, as a critic once noted of Bresson's, "stresses the privacy of minds," even to the
point that his characters seem to inhabit separate dramas. A creature of the green world,
the Orphan injures a bluejay and thereafter is shadowed by the bird's mate. The Apprentice still
inclines toward his own past, agonizing over whether he acted selfishly in leaving his family to
pursue selflessness. The Master, headed toward death, can offer Zen homilies to the younger monk,
but regrets the "insufficient ardor" of his own spiritual quest.
From a Western standpoint, it might seem that these dramas
converge in their common tinge of guilt. But the film overwhelms us with the sense that what
counts here finally is not individual, a matter of private blame or regret, but the universal
tendency toward dualism, where the mind clouds the world with
its own shadow. Zen koans attempt to shatter that logic with the shock of paradox. Bae acts similarly
by placing solitary sorrows in the most luminous of contexts: In his all-embracing vision, the
world yields nothing but splendor to the transparent mind -- it's a prison with all doors unlocked.
The implication reflects shards of personal history. Bae's bio relates that during a troubled
adolescence he retreated into Buddhist and Asian philosophy and spent a year living "in absolute
solitude as a hermit in the mountains." No less significantly, his film shares with Hou's the
effort of formulating a contemporary artistic ethos by recovering an indigenous and traditional
past. Whatever else Korean art may be or become, it obviously has deeper roots in Buddhism than
-- Godfrey Cheshire
This review first appeared in The NY Press, March 28, 1994.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Hyegok: Yi Pan-yong
Kibong: Sin Won-sop
Haejin: Huang Hae-jin
Superior: Ko Su-myong
Fellow disciple: Kim Hae-yong
and edited by: Bae Yong-kyun
Music by: Chin Kyu-yong
About the Transfer
Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? is presented in its original theatrical aspect
ratio of 1.66:1. This new transfer was created from a new 35mm composite print. New subtitle
translation by Bae Yong-kyun. Transfer supervised by: Robert J. Miller. Telecine operator:
Rick Gougler/Wickerworks Video Production, Englewood, CO
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