In the 1990s South Korea produced a number of very fine and acclaimed Buddhist-themed films, including a number that have been featured on this website: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring, Mandala, Passage to Buddha, and Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East?
Come, Come, Come Upward, which is directed by Im Kwon-Taek, is another of these films, but one not so well known. Like the Bodhidharma and Passage films it also centres on a koan, in this case: Why does Bodhidharma not have a beard? A koan of course is not really looking for an answer in the traditional sense, but is something like a provocation to thought.
It concerns a young woman, falsely accused at school, who joins a nunnery, only to be falsely accused there as well. She is forced to leave the nunnery and returns to lay life, marrying a drunkard and trying to reform him, and when he dies she gives herself over to saving other unfortunates, including by working as a district nurse.
Contrasted against her life is the life of a very severe young nun from the nunnery, and works hard to attain awakening, including doing three years meditating in a damp cave. The zen master of the nunnery, who always seems to speak in zen riddles, falls ill, and seems to be waiting for someone to return.
When the young nun comes it seems it must be her, but when the young lay woman comes it becomes clear she is the main inheritor of the master’s wisdom, and the last scene shows her disappearing into the unknown crowds as she vows to spread the master’s wisdom to everyone she meets.
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