Not an entertainment in a traditional sense.
Russell Fanelli | Longmeadow, MA USA | 08/29/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Those viewers wanting an entertaining evening at the movies may wish to stop reading this review now. Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? is not an entertainment in any traditional sense. The purpose of this film is to help us make connections with the world as it is. As we patiently watch the screen we may be gently or not so gently startled by what we experience. It may be that what we thought we knew we see truly for the first time.
Korean director Bae Yong-Kyun accomplishes this awakening in three ways. First he presents a story of two monks and a young orphan boy. The old Zen master, Hyegok, rescued the boy, Haejin from poverty in the city and brought the boy to a Zen mountain retreat to live. The young novice monk, Kibong, leaves his blind mother in the city to seek enlightenment. Kibong is directed by a Zen priest to go to the mountain retreat to assist the old master, who is dying. The master instructs his student and the young boy with few words, the example of his own life, and an occasional sharp remonstrance.
One important lesson the master teaches is the illusion of self and the interconnectedness of all beings. Suffering arises from the false desires of the self. The novice suffers deeply because he is confused about the right action to take and the purpose of his life. He feels guilt for having left his blind mother. At one point the novice goes down the mountain to buy medicine for the master in the city. He looks in on his mother without announcing himself and then quietly leaves her alone. He has made the decision to care for his master, not his mother.
The orphan has his own story. What little action takes place in this film centers on the activity of the boy. First, he throws a rock and stuns a bird which falls in the water. He quickly retrieves the bird and tries to nurse it back to health. Next, he himself is almost drowned by a group of boys who continue to dunk him under water as a screams in his fear and anguish. Soon after his encounter with the boys, he is standing on a rock face above the water and he is startled by the mate of the bird he wounded. He falls from the rock into the water and almost drowns. At the last moment he relaxes completely and begins to float.
The screech of the bird directs us to the second important element in the film. Sound is carefully used to bring us back to attention from our slumbers. This movie is so quiet and peaceful at times that we may be so relaxed we begin to doze off. The scream of the boy in the water, the screech of the bird, the gong struck by the novice, even the opening frame of the film in which the noise of a train passing alerts us to pay attention to all that will follow.
The peace I mentioned directs us to the final ingredient to be discussed. This film takes place in the beautiful mountains of Korea. Wind and water, fire and air, forests and fields are all lovingly shown and tell their own story of change and interconnectedness. For much of 137 minutes we watch from the mountain top the beauty of the world unfold before us. The master directs the attention of his novice to the breathtaking beauty and reality of what is right there for him to experience.
After my first viewing of Bodhi-Dharma, I waited a couple of days and then picked a quiet time to watch the film again. The elements I have mentioned in this review became more clear with the second viewing. This is one of those films that repay study for those who want to understand director Bae Yong-Kyun's vision. Why has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? is his only film and it was seven years or more in the making. This film justly deserves the praise and attention it has received. Highly recommended."
A work of art, though not for everyone
Ben Jordan | 05/26/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"There are not nearly enough Korean films available in the West, and this is the kind of movie which reminds me that we're missing out. A Buddhist monk and his apprentice live in a temple up in the mountains, and contemplate life and all of its meanings. This is the basic premise for a film which lasts for 2½ hours. And it took 10 years to make. But this is no criticism. Plenty of Zen Buddhist philosophy abounds despite sparse dialogue. While the film has a very challenging duration to endure, people who do stick with it will learn something of this popular religion (which I for one find interesting), and will also be treated to a lot of simply beautiful, captivating and breath-taking Korean natural scenery. If you can't watch a film without action, or a dialogue-driven drama, then don't torture yourself. This is not for you. Everyone else however will find a damn good film with depth-aplenty. Highly recommended."
Meditative Zen Movie
S. Jung | MD USA | 03/02/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I am seeing this movie third time. Frankly speaking I doubt that common western viewers can understand fully the stories without background of introductory Zen. I think this movie is full of symbolism on Zen and eastern philosophy. For example, the positions, moving rhythms, and angles of camera usually are from the observer or the shelf. Karma is a main principle supporting the story. Even without any knowledge on Zen, this movie is still meditative, or very boring to make you sleep peacefully. I heard that the original movie was luckily found by the director himself for DVD production. Original sound is mono. English translation seemed to be good and concise. The director is a professor in Korea, and this is the first and last movie he made for public. I heard that he spent seven years for this movie in the Ji-ri Mountain in the southern Korea."
Ben Jordan | 07/15/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Watched this movie with my wife. She disliked it for its "stark realism" - I loved it for it's breathtaking imagery. True, it deals with life issues with a no nonsesnse stark reality way, and without the honeycoating of a hollywood movie - but for me the visual beauty of the film was wonderful. In addition, for those interested in things philosophical, the story line holds together well and the themes are explored with regard the title of the film (which is a zen ko-an).Don't really know of another film like it - we bought it because we were looking for a 'slow' film like 'Scent of Green Papaya" which we love. This is nothing like 'scent' but it creates a 'spaciousness' which we both loved. If you want car chases, explosions, girls in bikinis, and sword fights, leave this one alone!"