Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Korean Buddhist cinema

Via The Revealer, I learn about director (and star) Kim Ki-duk's movie, "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring," which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. Sounds like an amazing flick.

Later that afternoon, Sundance held the world premiere of Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s new film, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . and Spring.” Set on a floating monastery in a lush, unnamed valley, “Spring, Summer” is the story of a Buddhist monk and his young protégé and the cycles that bind and loose their lives.

In the opening segment, “Spring,” the boy explores his mischievous side by tying small stones to a fish, a frog, and a snake and watching them struggle to carry the weight. He laughs with cruel pleasure, the just-past-innocent pleasure of a boy learning how he can manipulate the world. The monk watches secretly, disappointedly.

The next morning, the boy awakens under the weight of a large stone. When he cries to be released, the monk tells him to first go release the animals. “But if any of them have died,” he warns, “you will carry that stone in your heart for the rest of your life.”

Spoken like a koan, those words become a prophecy. As the seasons change, the boy grows by a decade or more, and by the time we arrive at “Winter” he has learned about the cycles of love and hate, birth and death, bondage and freedom.

Ki-duk depicts Buddhism as a blessing and a curse, a force for evil and redemption. We are constantly reminded of the role of the Buddha statue, which, in this monastery, is made sacred only to haunt its worshippers. Both the master and his pupil are forced to confront the reality that freedom from the self may finally mean self-obliteration.

Much of what is interesting about Sundance is what happens after the screenings, when there is usually a Q&A session with directors/actors, and then an extended period of milling about. “Spring, Summer” had no representation, but audience members were yet eager to chat with each other. As the lights came up after the movie, I turned to get the reactions of the four guys sitting behind me. Hollywood screenwriters all, they were buzzing with the lessons they learned from Ki-duk’s precise, methodical storytelling. They didn’t know anything about Buddhism, they said, but the movie had awakened dormant curiosities.

Not having seen the film, I'm not sure how to take the reviewer's contention that, "Both the master and his pupil are forced to confront the reality that freedom from the self may finally mean self-obliteration." In Buddhism, there's no self-obliteration because, well, there's no self. Is the writer referring to something tragic that happens in the movie? A monk crushed under a Buddha statue, for example? I don't know. But to describe Buddhist practice as "confronting" this reality isn't quite right. Realizing jae beop gong sang, all things (lit. "all dharmas") have the character of emptiness, isn't somehow negative or horrifying or disturbing. The reviewer sounds a little too much like many Westerners who mistakenly equate Buddhist emptiness with the French existentialist's Void or Nonbeing.

This film was also being offered for consideration for the Academy Awards, in the Best Foreign Film category (see here for another interesting writeup).

I don't know the Korean title (at a guess, "Bom, Yeoreum, Ga-eul, Gyeo-ul... Bom"), but I'm going to look this film up. If it's already available as a DVD in the States, I might nab it through Amazon.

Back in 1989, while I was living in Fribourg, Switzerland, I saw Bae Yong-kyun's "Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East?", a fascinating and Zen-saturated film (WARNING: not for people who need fast-paced action). "Spring" sounds like a film in a very similar vein.

UPDATE: I found the listing for "Spring," with a romaja transliteration of the Korean title.


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