18 June 2011

Buddhist Stories in Korean Cinema

Films with specific Buddhist content do not make up a significant percentage of Korean cinema, and among them not many can be confirmed as the products of self-conscious Buddhist religious practice. Rather than relying on the self-understanding of the filmmakers, however, I read the 'Buddhist film' within the historical lineage of a specific cultural tradition of popular oral performances, as well as its derivative tradition of popular narratives. Seen in this light, the thin trickle of films joins forces with a well-established and traditional deployment of art as religious practice. Hence, rather than isolating the films withing their modern temporal framework, I instead view them as the contemporary evolution of a process that began as far back as the eighth century.


This strategy allow us to gain a diverse perspective on Korean cinema as well. Korea's film industry has been, for most of its history, an ideological battleground define by twentieth-century history. During the ear of Japanese colonial rule (1910-45), the film industry was monitored for nationalist sentiment and utilized for pro-Japanese propaganda. After the north-south division of the country, which began with the Soviet-U.S. occupation (1945-48) and which solidified after the civil war (1950-53), the ideological standoff between the two Koreas intensified the political use of film on both sides. While North Korean cinema is a state-controlled affair, from production to distribution, the South Korean industry has been only slightly better off, being constantly subject to ideological control and censorship. The Korean Motion Picture Act (1962), for example, suppressed any portrayals of poverty and economic conflict, promoting instead narratives of prosperity tied to the Park Chung Hee regime (1961-79). Since the 1980s, the easing of political pressures has given rise to the use of film as a medium of social criticism - a freer yet equally political utilization. Concurrently, more films have been produced for the international market in the pursuit of national prestige as well as of cultural identity.

The Buddhist film makes its appearance largely since the 1980s and is well represented in the category of the international export film. Its relative novelty can lead one to interpret it as the outcome of contemporary social needs. Hence, the turn to religious themes is read by Hyangjin Lee in Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity, Culture, Politics (2000, p. 61) as a 'search for a moral vision of society,' particularly in the midst of rapid modernization. Im Kwontaek's Mandala (1981) and Come, Come, Come Upward (1989), and Bae Yonggyun's Why Has Bodi Dharma Left for the East? (1989), in fact, all exhibit a social consciousness that is the hallmark of South Korea's 'new wave' filmmakers, and they utilize a Buddhist filter in order to address contemporary concerns about class and poverty, as noted by David James in Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema (2002). The Buddhist film also reflects the vogue of traditional culture and folkways as a subject of Korean cinema, made most explicit in such films as Im Kwontaek's Sopyanje (1993) and Festival (1996). This new interest in the past bespeaks the contemporary yearning for identity and cultural pride. In addition, the nostalgia for traditional and folk culture can be read as a politics of aesthetics which 'traditional Koran culture' is marketed to the international film community as a way of gaining currency in the global cultural arena.

Bearing these contemporary dynamics in mind, our view of these films can be significantly broadened if we place them within the lineage of Buddhist religious practices. To illustrate this, I will examine 'Passage to Buddha' as exemplary of the tendency of Buddhist scriptures to be co-opted into more popular and accessible formats. Passage to Buddha is the English translation of the Korean film title, Hwaomkyong, which is the Korean name of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Chinese: Huayanjing). The film borrows its narrative from the final chapter of the sutra, which also exists independently in the Sanskritic tradition as the Gandavyuha (entry into the realm of reality). In this text, the central character - a young boy named Sudhana - sets off on a pilgrimage to attain enlightenment from 53 successive teachers. These 'enlightening beings,' who are the subject of the first half of the Gandavyuha, have two notable qualities. First, they take a multitude of human forms: mendicants, priests, scholars, scientists, doctors, merchants, ascetics, entertainers, artisans, and craftsmen (The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra1993, p. 1169). This variety embodies the Mahayana view that all beings are bodhisattvas who have a role to play in the weal of other beings. It also underscores the concept of 'expedient means' (upaya), and the idea that different people respond to different kinds of teachers. The enlightening beings take on different forms for that reason. This is also related to their second notable quality, which is that they are 'phantom' beings who appear to people according to the latter's need: 'Having pervaded the cosmos with their emanations, they enlightened, developed, and guided sentient beings' (The Flower Ornament Scripture, p. 1168). As phantom manifestations, the enlightening beings demonstrate the Mahayana view that illusion can be a form of benevolent magic.

The human diversity and the skillful magic of the enlightening beings lend themselves to narrative description. the idea that all kinds of beings can function as spiritual guides sets up the possibility of many kinds of narrative scenarios. It offers a leave, if you will, to enter into any number of human predicaments for their inherent dramatic interest. In Passage to Buddha, the pilgrim is an 11-year-old boy names Sonje who wanders through modern-day Korea, particularly its social margins. The film opens in a crematorium where the body of Sonje's father, too poor and inconsequential to be identified, is rendered into ashes. Beginning with the loss of his father, who is never seen or named, Sonje proceeds in the rest of the film to search for his mother, who apparently abandoned him as an infant. The themes of orphanage and homelessness, as we will see, are ubiquitous Buddhist tropes. They pervade the medieval biographies of eminent monks and surface in both our films.

Sonje's search for his mother is overtly conflated with Sudhana's search for Buddhahood, as the former declares that his mother can be found in any 'good person.' The interchangeability of mother and Buddha as objects of yearning is depicted in one Oedipal dream sequence in which Sonje encounters a beautiful older woman who makes love to him. At the end of the film, Sonje has another vision, this time of his mother, who declares to him that she is the mother of all beings, including the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The ultimate convertibility of signs, or manifestations, is a pointed declaration here, very much in the spirit of the Gandavyuha's teaching that enlightening beings take any and all forms. The specific conflation of Buddha and mother, who is also depicted as a love object, makes the further point that the traditionally antipodal realms of religion and domesticity are oppositions that must be overcome. Interestingly, Sonje has difficulty accepting this lesson in his own life, when he rejects marriage to the young woman he has impregnated in order to continue his spiritual pilgrimage.

Sonje's succession teachers include a doctor, a blond beggar woman, a political prisoner, an astronomer, and a lighthouse keeper. In keeping with its namesake text, the film narrates a deliberate process in which each teacher sends Sonje on to the next, indicating the each as a particular teaching to give and that a variety of encounters are necessary to attain the full Dharma. The idea that each human encounter imparts a spiritual boon is denoted by the deep bow that Sonje renders to each character before moving on. The one personage that weaves in and out of Sonje's journey is the apostate Buddhist monk, another abiding trope of East Asian narratives. At the very beginning of his travels, Sonje encounters the monk in a restaurant, eating meat and drinking wine. The monk appears again midpoint in the film to exhort Sonje to marry the little girl - now a young woman whom Sonje initially met at the crematorium. In the final encounter, Sonje sees the monk working with the village women, gutting fish in order to earn money for wine. The meeting culminates Sonje's sense of hopelessness and confusion, triggering a suicide attempt and the ultimate turn toward understanding, as signified by the aforementioned vision of his mother.

The world-embracing monk, with his decidedly nonmonastic ways, is a familiar figure that reaches back to the popular Buddhist text the Vimalakirtinirdeua Sutra. The text is named for its principle character, Vimalakirti, a noncleric who indulges in worldly activities yet who bests the most renowned Buddhist disciples in Buddha wisdom. This second-century Mahayana text was extremely favored in East Asia for its emphasis on the value of lay life. The critique of monastic reclusion that is implicit in the wold-embracing monk is a prominent theme in Korean Buddhist films. To be sure, Passage to Buddha's overall focus on the social fringes - each of Sonje's teachers bear the pain of a personal or social lack - manifests a political consciousness that is the imprint of post-1980s Korean cinema. The concordance of religious practice and social service, however, is a theme explicitly emphasized throughout the Avatamsaka, which embraces worldly activity and skills 'guided not by the personal desires of the practitioners but by the current needs of the society that they are serving, according to what will be beneficial' (The Flower Ornament Scripture, p. 41).

In simply co-opting the title of a significant Buddhist text, Passage to Buddha declares its lineage. Beyond lifting its plot line from Sudhana's famous pilgrimage, the film plays on the theme of enlightening illusions. One method it employs is a classic use of dreams as a way of advancing the tale - as well as Sonje's spiritual knowledge. Both dream episodes entail encounters with mother figures that are emotionally and religiously loaded. In the first, Sonje's Oedipal encounter with his mother/lover abruptly and rather disturbingly ends when she falls from a cliff during a post-coital excursion. In the second, Sonje finally has a vision of a woman who calls herself his mother, as well as the mother of all beings. the dream sequences mark significant noes in the plot/journey - at the point of maximum loss and absence and at the point of maximum attainment and presence. The ability of dreams - which, after all, are illusions - to function so meaningfully in the course of Sonje's journey can be paralleled to the medium of film itself. This is pointedly suggested by a curious detail in Passage to Buddha: The boy Sonje never ages despite the passage of many years. This detail explicitly invokes the conceit of the Buddhist-derived short dream, as I have discussed elsewhere in Embracing Illusion: Truth and Fiction in the Dream of the Nine Clouds (1996, pp. 85-107). When such dramas are told as stories or acted out as films, the efficacy of the former is extended to the latter genres as functional equivalents. These 'transformations,' which offer a distilled and potent experience of life, are better vehicles of instruction than the distracted experiences of waking reality.

Passage to Buddha is a secular telling of a story derived from Buddhist narratives and tropes. In that sense, this film continues the tradition of oral storytelling performances, which are themselves derived from religious storytelling practices - both Buddhist and shamanic. In this lineage of performance, entertainment is a logical aspect of religious practice because the ability to 'entertain' a reality made present by art is a necessary step to religious truth. Passage to Buddha is overt and didactic about linking religion and art, paralleling the religious journey of Sudhana with the film journey of Sonje, and by using the dream trope to implicitly question the distinctions between dream, reality, and film. The qualitative performance of the religious question in the medium of film enables one to transcend the distinctions between the religious, the secular, and the aesthetic as merely functional qualifications of the greater truth of presence.

[This essay was written by Francisca Cho. It was extracted and slightly edited from her chapter 'The Art of Presence: Buddhism and Korean Films,' which was originally published in Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making (2003), pp. 107-119. Aside from the short clip above, Passage to Buddha turns up on YouTube from time to time and separate English subtitles are available here.]

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