Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?

Buddha Boy

By Greg Cahill

Alpha wave alert! South Korean filmmaker Bae Yong-Kyun’s stunning 1989 film Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? is rife with Zen Buddhist doctrine, haunting visual allegories, and mystical imagery. No sex. No chase scenes. No explosions. No gratuitous violence. Just a subtle lesson about the meaning of life.

Its cryptic title, taken from an ancient Zen koan, or riddle, is a starting point for cinematic truth-seekers prepared to receive the magnificently photographed–and often glacially slow–scenes that serve as the primer for the elusive Zen mode of perception. The film–which screens January 9-10 at the Sonoma Film Institute–breaks down preconceptions about life and religion and flirts with the higher reaches of the mind in a way one never would have thought possible from gradations of light and color flickering on a silver screen.

It is widely regarded as one of the most visually stunning films ever made.

“I am convinced that Zen offers the possibility of discovering the reality of things and the foundations of the soul with only intuition, which is possible when we have cleared all the accumulated concepts from our consciousness,” says filmmaker Bae Yong-Kuan, who wrote, directed, produced, photographed, and edited this impressive work.

Welcome to nirvana with a box of ju-ju bees.

Bodhi-Dharma is a cinematic triumph that has earned un certain regard at the Cannes Film Festival and the coveted Golden Leopard at the Lorcarno Film Festival, the first-ever international directors’ awards in the 70-year history of Korean filmmaking.

The film’s minimal plot tells the story of an aging monk, Hye Gok (Yi Pan Yong); his adolescent student, Ki Bong (Sin Won Sop); and an orphaned child, Hae Jin (Huang Hae Jin), representing the three ages of man. They live together in a remote Zen monastery on Mount Chonan in South Korea. Several of the film’s most striking scenes involve Ki Bong’s rites of passage and his difficult childhood spiritual journey.

The poetic shots of misty meadows, darkened forests, and translucent rock pools evoke the splendor of Ansel Adams’ pastoral photographs and create a seductive bond between the viewer and the film’s stark natural settings and gentle Zen beliefs.

And Yong-Kyun shows a real gift for understatement.

At one point, Ki Bong conducts the ritualistic cremation of his teacher, scattering the ashes in a mountain pool flecked with colorful autumn leaves. The fallen ashes dust his arms and clothes, cling to floating leaves, and intermingle with reflections of overhanging foliage.

It’s a mystical moment in which all things seem to unite. The scene underscores the Zen tenet of harmonious existence with the world. It also serves as a simple, yet powerful, metaphor about life, death, suffering, and transformation. Bernardo Bertolucci wasn’t half as effective as this with 1995’s laughable Little Buddha, starring the gawkish Keanu Reeves as a young truth-seeker.

Clearly, Yong-Kyun has earned his kudos.

“Again and again, the film finds visual analogues for the oneness of the universe and the enlightenment to be found through the renunciation of earthly desires,” the New York Times marveled. “In gazing into the physical world with a fixity, clarity, and depth rarely found in the cinema, Why has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? goes about as far as a film can go in conjuring a meditative state.”

The result is a state of bliss unparalleled in the film world.

Why has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? screens Friday and Saturday, Jan. 9 and 10 at 7 p.m. at the Sonoma Film Institute, Sonoma State University, Darwin Hall, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Tickets are $2.50-$4. 664-2606.

From the January 8-14, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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