What can film, a medium whose tools are mostly sensuous and exterior, hope to make of processes that are nothing but subtle shifts of outlook or understanding? Yet those deep tremors have been conveyed visually, most often in foreign films: Robert Bresson’s 1950 Diary of a Country Priest is a famous example. And just this year, Iranian director Majid Majidi‘s The Color of Paradise, a film about the confluence of the spirit and the senses, told the story of a lonely 8-year-old blind boy who reads natural textures with his fingertips, as if a secret message has been written there in Braille, just for him. His teacher tells the boy that God loves sightless people and has granted them special powers: ”God is invisible, but you can see him with your hands.“
Evocative natural textures are an expressive element in Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (Dharmaga Tongjoguro Kan Kkadanlgun, 1989), a religious film made in Korea by a painter, Bae Yong-Kyun. Bodhi-Dharma is the most enveloping of the three Buddhist films that the Film Department at LACMA has programmed to mark the first anniversary of its Korean art galleries. Much of the film’s impact hinges on the insinuating cumulative effects of gently wafting bamboo fronds, and silvery water gurgling over granite boulders flecked with lichen. These textures and rhythms are echoed in the movie‘s unhurried pace, in the plain-wood interiors of its setting, a remote mountain monastery, and even in its decor, in the mottled shapes of its ceramic cups and lanterns and the rough gray and brown surfaces of heavy fabrics that are clearly adopted to help the monks harmonize with their environment.
Again and again the film finds apt visual equivalents of spiritual or moral states: the emergent rapt awareness of nature in a small boy, an orphan who has become a ward of the elder monk, and the way the split consciousness of a guilt-racked disciple who has abandoned his blind and destitute mother is manifested in his unfocused, awkward movements. Key narrative shifts are signaled visually, too, in the seemingly unruly behavior of inanimate objects. When the string linking the golf-ball-size prayer beads of an elderly monk (Ko Su-Myung) snaps suddenly, and the wooden spheres go clattering off in all directions, this small victory for chaos is a sign that the old man’s days are numbered.
The dappled visual scheme of Bodhi-Dharma, and its glib identification of wisdom with a calm acceptance of change and decay, has been dismissed by some critics as precious. It‘s true that Bae never quite manages the transition between depicting a transcendental state and inducing it in the viewer. But he edges a lot closer to the heart of the matter than Jeong Ji-Young (White Badge) ever does in Beyond the Mountain (Sansan-I Buseojin Ileum-I-Yeo, 1991), a monastery film that is strikingly similar to Bodhi-Dharma in plot and design, but lacks that film’s gliding elegance. Here the lure of the worldly takes the form of a romantic attachment between a monk and a nun from neighboring institutions; the imminent death of another aging master is introduced largely to heighten the couple‘s risk of exposure. And in Im Kwon-Taek’s Come Come Come Upward (Aje Aje Bara Aje, 1989), the vocation of a trusting and serious young nun (Kang Su-Yeon) is undermined by an incident of sexual abuse.
In all these films, it‘s the practical consequences of religious choices that are explored, rather than the inner journey that led up to them. The resources of film — sound, color, rhythm — are deployed to give us at least a teasing taste of a rarefied state of consciousness. But the techniques that work best often amount to a form of misdirection — like one of those tricky laser-light sculptures that offer a dramatic visual image, but only when we glance at them in passing. These handsome Korean movies may simply be too straightforward, too levelheaded, to evoke something so vaporous.