Yong-Kyun Bae

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7.7 Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left For The East (1989) Links:

Yong-Kyun Bae (Korea, 1951)

Geomeuna Dange Huina Baekseong/ The People in White (1995)

Dharmaga Tongjoguro Kan Kkadalgun/ Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left For The East (1989), whose title is an unanswerable zen riddle, is a slow, meditative and contemplative film that mainly relies on images, not on dialogues, and is drenched in symbolism. The action mixes reality, dreams and flashback. The film can be read in wildly opposite ways. One can speculate that the death of the master is the ultimate lesson that teaches both the young monk and the child the ultimate meaning of life; both rising above their fate. Or one can speculate that the death of the old master liberates the younger monk so he can leave the delusion of the Zen koans, and return to the real world, while at the same time the child, being an abandoned orphan who has never known any other life, has no choice but to become the new master; both simply victims of fate.

Haejin, an orphan boy, Kibong, a young monk, and Hyegok An old man, Hyegok, calls for Haejin and then drinks tea. A young man, Kibong, is sawing a tree and cuts his finger. The child catches a bird with a stone while another bird watches. The young man returns to the adobe carrying firewood. Then he lies on floor and stares at a portrait. During a fireside chat the child asks what lies beyond the mountain and the old master answers: the "world". Haejin is an abandoned orphan adopted by the old master and has lived in this isolated hermitage all his life. The child asks why they have left the world and the old master expalains it in Buddhist terms (to escape greed, passion, etc). The old master pulls an aching tooth of the child. The child keeps the bird in a cage. The young man smokes and drinks. He dreams of a young woman hanging clothes and an old blind woman (his wife and his mother). In another flashback we learn that Kibong asked a Buddhist monk for advice and this monk told him about the old monk who lived alone with a child in this remote hermitage. During a stormy night the young man asks the old master whether he sinned by leaving his family behind in order to leave the material world. Hyegok is useless because he replies with abstract cryptic sentences, such as his two fundamental koans: "What is my original face before my father and mother were conceived?" and "When the moon takes over in your heart, where does the master of my being go?" One day the child Haejin finds his bird dead. He buries it under a rock. The child overhears the old master lecturing the young monk by the river. The child treasures the tooth and the old master scolds him for being attached to a body part that does not belong to his body anymore. Haejin has a nightmare: children play in a pond and try to drown him. Haejin returns to the place where he buried the bird and finds finds the bird's corpse devoured by worms. Disgusted and remorseful, he dives in the pond and lets himself float lifeless in the water. When he wakes up and walks ashore, he cries. It is getting dark and the child seems lost in the forest, but he is saved by a ox with a constantly ringing bell: he simply follows the animal that walks rapidly through the forest. At some point the child collapses and falls asleep. He dreams that a woman is rescuing him but it is actually the ox mooing at him. The young monk Kibong takes the bus to town and walks around the frenzied and noisy market begging for alms with his little bowl. He uses the money to pay for medicine for the old man, who is getting sicker and sicker. Kibong has a vision of a boy (himself) carying his cart through a crowd in a narrow alley wrapped in smoke. It's a flashback to his former life. He goes to visit an ailing blind woman who is winding up an old clock: his mother. She senses his presence and calls his name Yong Nan but he leaves without a word. Later he meditates on his own decision to leave his fate behind with references to the life of the Buddha: "The departure is the process of returning... He came back inside all of us... It is easy to fight against one's fate, difficult to learn to love it... who is Buddha and who isn't he?" He is torn between his Buddhist beliefs and the remorse of having abandoned parents, wife and children. He has decided of going back to the real world, but the stern master scolds him. The problem is that the old master Hyegok rambles on and on with incomprehensbile koans like "Are Hell and Heaven different?" Kibong leaves but get caught in roaring rapids and almost dies, rescued by the old master at the cost of making the old master even sicker. The old master is in fact dying and gives Kibong instruction for the burial, except that it is just another incomprehensible koan. The old master meditates that "I am insubstantial in the universe but in the universe there is nothing that is not me". On the full-moon night Kibong takes the child to a ceremony/performance at a temple in the valley, leaving the old master alone at home. The core of the ceremony is the pantomime by a ghostly figure who resembles the old master himself. They return to the old master's hermitage when it's already very dark and can see his face behind a lighted window. We see the ending of the temple's ceremony with the ghostly protagonist walking away. The old master is dead. As per his instructions, Kibong loads the corpse in a chest and carries it on his shoulders to a funeral pyre. The child at home hears the cry of a bird. At sunrise Kibong is surrounded by ashes, his face painted black by the charred firewood. He collects some of the bone fragments, grinds them, and then spreads them over a creek. In the middle of the night he wakes up hearing the chant of the child. Kibong leaves the temple for good, promising to the child that someone from the nearby temple will come. Alone at home the child decides to burn the old master's things. A bird that has been watching him flies away, high in the sky.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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