WHY HAS BODHI-DHARMA LEFT FOR THE EAST? strives to visualize the contemplative nature of Zen Buddhism as it patiently follows the interactions of a young disciple, an aging Zen master, and an orphan boy at a hermitage on Mount Chonan in South Korea. Reportedly ten years in the making, the
film was a labor of love for Bae Young-kyun, who wrote, directed, produced, photographed,and edited.
Kibong (Sin Won-sop) is a young man who has left the city to apprentice with an elderly Zen Master, Hyegok (Yi Pan-yong), who lives at a mountainside hermitage with a young orphan boy, Haejin (Huang Hae-jin). The film follows their actions over the course of a few days, occasionally intercutting
Kibong's memories of leaving his family and visiting the temple at the foot of the mountain where he is told about the hermit. The boy deliberately injures a bird and tries to keep it alive. A cow breaks free from a stable. The old man pulls out the boy's tooth. Intermittently, the old master
shares his wisdom with his two younger companions, and the disciple shares his insights with the boy.
When the bird dies, the boy puts the corpse under an old section of pipe. He later returns to examine the remains and finds them covered with maggots. He buries the remains, but is frightened by the cries of the bird's mate. He falls into the stream and is knocked unconscious. When he washes up
on shore, he awakens and finds he is lost. In the woods, he encounters the stray cow and begins following it. He eventually makes it back to the hermitage, along with the cow.
Concerned about the master's health, Kibong visits the city and begs for money to buy medicine. He visits his old dwelling and sees his blind mother. She calls out at his approach, but he doesn't answer. Upon his return to the mountain, he prays at a shrine and announces that he will go back to
"the world." The old man declares that his end is near, and gives Kibong instructions on what to do with his body. Kibong takes the boy to the temple at the foot of the mountain for a Buddhist ceremony. When they return home late at night, they find Hyegok dead. Kibong follows Hyegok's
instructions, getting out an old wooden chest and placing the old man in it and then carting it to a specific spot on the mountain. He builds a fire and cremates the coffin. He waits there until the morning, at which point he scatters the man's ashes around the mountain. He gives the boy a bundle
containing the master's possessions and tells him that he is leaving and will tell the monks at the Temple to send someone to replace him. The boy burns the bundle and sits and gets water from a small pool, just as the master had done at the beginning of the film. The dead bird's mate, which has
been watching the boy all this time, finally flies away. The stray cow follows Kibong down the mountain.
No plot synopsis can render the pictorial beauty and flowing natural rhythms of this 135-minute film. The zen approach extends to the editing; only as much time is spent on each segment as is needed. Sometimes one camera setup is sufficient, sometimes a whole series of shots. Close-ups of
nature--trees, rocks, water, animals--act as transitions between sequences.
Students of eastern religion eager for wisdom may be hungry for more than the tidbits dished out by the master and his disciple from time to time. However, the film does not seek to educate or enlighten the audience, only to convey in visual terms some of the essence of Zen Buddhism. The film
does not always keep to a linear narrative path. We learn about the young disciple through sequences that are not immediately recognizable as scraps of memory. Dreams play a large role in revealing the characters of Kibong and Haejin. If there is a plot, it is the story of Kibong's experience as a
disciple and his ultimate decision to go back to his old life, as revealed in the following lines from his prayer at the shrine: "I became a hermit to seek perfection....The world is not imperfect. The imperfection is in our language. I am going back to the world, to the turbulence of life."
The film seeks to reflect the cyclical nature of life, in the way that the boy replaces the old man at the end of the film and the young man returns to the city and the family obligations he'd felt so guilty about leaving. The film stresses the zen concept that everything is individual--be it a
person, an animal, a rock, a blade of grass--but is an integral part of a larger whole. Everything does what it needs to do and learns what it needs to learn.
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: NR
- Review: WHY HAS BODHI-DHARMA LEFT FOR THE EAST? strives to visualize the contemplative nature of Zen Buddhism as it patiently follows the interactions of a young disciple, an aging Zen master, and an orphan boy at a hermitage on Mount Chonan in South Korea. Report… (more)