The problem with the pop-culturization of film is that it has perilously lowered the attention span of the average filmgoer to the point where it seems positively atavistic to recommend a film like Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (The title of this film comes from an unanswerable Zen Buddhist Koan or riddle designed for meditation in the search for spiritual enlightenment.) Absolutely and blissfully the polar opposite of American film making, this is one of the most beautiful films you’re likely to see in this lifetime, and quite possibly the next. It is also a film with deliberate rhythms that might cause anxiety attacks in the casual filmgoer after the first few minutes. But rarely has a film’s pace matched its content so brilliantly.
Written, directed, photographed and edited by South Korean art teacher Bae Yong-Kyun, the plot is simple: a young acolyte and an orphaned little boy join an aging Buddhist monk in a deserted mountaintop monastery where the elder Zen master prepares for his death and to transfer his wisdom down through the ages via the young follower and the boy. Before the old master dies, we see the young monk wrestle a bit with his own spirituality, returning briefly to the city he left behind. Apart from that, this is a film without conflict, a film that shows the affinity between nature and spirituality. There are many stunning scenes of beauty here, such as the mist that metaphorically encloses the monastery when the young monk leaves and the spectral appearance of death in the guise of a dancer at an eerie nighttime ceremony. This is also a rare film in that it – like the films of Andrei Tarkovsky – gives nature a distinct voice in the narrative. Indeed, the film unfolds with the rhythms of a gently flowing stream, and the characters are never given much more weight than their surroundings, suggesting that man’s spiritual enlightenment depends on a perfect coexistence with nature.
The film depicts life as a continuous circle of the mysteries of birth and death, and when the old master dies, he explains the passing of the spirit not as death, but as a kind of cosmic recycling that liberates the soul. This sublime piece of religious art resonates with the viewer long after it’s over. Its images are breathtaking; the shots are framed like Ansel Adams photographs. Unfortunately, in the cynical ’90s, which prizes materialism and worships soul-killing concepts like irony (or more accurately, the sarcasm that passes itself off as “irony”), there is little room for a film that preaches such arcane notions as tolerance. Additionally, one is always suspected of more sinister purposes when recommending material of such a purely religious nature, as if Bodhi-Dharma might be a recruiting film for Zen Buddhists. Though there are worse things to recruit for, the film never proselytizes. If anything, the film makes Buddhism seem like a difficult spiritual search whose greatest answers, and greatest mysteries, are found after death.