I hope this review finds you well.
Today I watched “Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?” for the first time. It is Bae Yong-Kyun first feature and it won the Golden Leopard in Locarno in 1989. It is going to be shown in London, as part of the Korean Film Festival ‘A Century of Korean Cinema Focus’. I am not sure how I feel about it.
The camera follows the daily lives of three main characters
in the mountain (of course all male; I would like to believe it’s because it was 1989 and people could still openly say they didn’t care or it didn’t even cross their mind). Our three musketeers are all Buddhist monks and from different generations: Hae-jin, young boy, Ki-bong, thirty-something, and Hye-gok, elder and Master. The three generations have different approaches to life and to Buddhism and Zen.
The Korean movie is very contemplative and slow, there is not so much development of the characters, with a consequent lack of empathetic feelings towards them. Part of me is a bit frustrated because I would have loved to explore the story of Ki-bong (there is clearly an interesting back story here) or Hae-jin (who grew up quite isolated and in a very unique environment), and I would have liked to actually empathize with them. However, part of me also understands that the feature is not so much about empathizing with the three men, but more about having a cinematographic parenthesis where we breathe at the same time as them, slow down, enjoy the scenery and ask ourselves about the meaning of life.
The cinematography is stunning, and it made total sense when I learned that Bae Yong-Kyun (who also acted as DOP on the film) is a painter. It took the director 7 years to complete the feature, and he did an entire team’s job alone: director, cinematographer, editor (and no less than by hands), producer, distributor, screenwriter.
In order to clarify my thoughts, allow me to do one of the things I like the most: lists (a passion I share with Ross from “Friends”, and frankly one more reason to like the guy).
Challenges (read in office language: negative points): a bit long, no women and no humour, would have probably more meaning and layers for people who have knowledge about Zen, maybe won in Locarno because the movie is partially what the West expects the East to be, and hence orientalist.
Opportunities (read in office language: positive points): great music and cinematography, surely worth-watching on the big screen, soothing, makes the viewer think about the meaning of life, makes me want to research Zen.
In conclusion, I would say that it is a movie I would not watch over and over again; but I would watch on the big screen and with my mom. I could consider re-watching when in big questioning about the meaning of life (that is, more than usual).
Don’t hesitate to reach out for any questions,