This is a hauntingly beautiful and deeply meditative film by the Korean painter and filmmaker Bae Yong-kyun, who spent 7 years making and editing the film. The title is a famous koan, and the whole film is permeated by Buddhist themes and is built up around Zen koans and Zen-like dialogue.
The film centers around the lives of three monks living in a remote monastery half way up a mountain. The first is Master Hyegok, who is coming to the end of his days; the second is a young monk Kibong, who has left his ageing Mother and family duties, driven by a need to seek the Truth and who is now plagued by guilt; and then there is the orphan Haejin whom the Master found in the city and took back to the hermitage.
Near the beginning of the film while washing in a stream Haejin throws a rock at a bird which hits it, and it falls into the river. The young boy, remorseful, now tries to save the bird, but it soon dies and throughout the film the bird’s mate is seen at crucial times in the trees watching the unfolding drama below as though waiting for revenge.
Besides the koan of the title there are two others which are central to the film. The first, What is your original face? is presented in the film in the following dialogue:
Here there is a log of wood with a crane’s head, a dragon’s head and a lizard’s breast engraved. It has no name. It’s your face before your birth. It’s your body before the birth of your parents. With that you must solve the mystery of birth and death.
and the second is, Where does the Master of my being go?
When the moon takes over in your heart where does the Master of my being go? Kibong, I give you this Koan. You must be ardent and persevering to understand it and show it to me. If you think about this Koan day and night if you concentrate on meditating you will understand and come to Enlightenment.
at one point late in the film, when the young man Kibong is thinking of returning to the world, the master forbids it and advises him:
You must keep the Koan between your teeth even if you fall into a furnace.
The film is an exploration of the realities underlying birth and death, as seen of course from a Zen perspective, and the theme emerges time and again in the dialogues:
Nothing is immutable, everything changes. That thing which does not come into being, does not die… In the cycle without beginning or end to live or die are the same thing. But life is for those who stay. In the everlasting stream there is no birth, no death. For those who stay, death is an insoluble problem.
The film however is very sparse on dialogue, indeed there is a section near the end when for more then fifteen minutes there is no speaking at all, and the images do the work of telling the story.
And all the way through it is the recurring images of the widowed bird, the rushing waters, and an ox in the bushes, recalling the ox-herding drawings, that serve to link up the episodes. It is no coincidence that the filmmaker is a painter, and he sees the scenes in a painterly way.
The film follows the three as they live together and come to a deeper understanding of the nature of the world, and the culmination of the film comes when the old Master dies and the young monk takes him for burial, reaching Awakening himself in the process.
With his death the Master finally manages to pass on the teaching that had escaped the young monk during their sojourn together, and the last scene sees the latter returning to the world with the ox securely in tow.
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