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Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? More at IMDbPro »Dharmaga tongjoguro kan kkadalgun (original title)

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29 out of 30 people found the following review useful:

Right moviemaking

Author: Razzbar from usa
3 March 2000

A strange thing happened to me while watching this movie for the first time: About halfway thru, I lost the desire to pay attention to it. It's not that I lost interest, just that I lost the feeling of need or obligation to pay attention in order to get the most out of it.

Cinematic enlightenment? Or just fatigue?

Hmmm... probably a little of both, combined with the knowledge that it I can always watch it again.

Cinematic reincarnation!

This really is a different movie, and I can see it being played on my VCR time and time again, at times when I want to "watch something", but don't...

There's just so much to it, so much to think about, so much to see, that one time thru will only give a little sip. And I'm afraid that there are times when it does help to read the subtitles -- although much of the time there are no subtitles.

The thing about it is, rather than "teach" Buddhist philosophy, it "gives the experience". It follows its three characters on the path, and gives lessons on letting go.

There is a scene where a young boy returns to the grave of a bird he'd buried a few days before: Unable to let go of the bird, unable to accept death, he finds that yes, life goes on, but in ways that he was not ready to accept or understand! In an instant, he's startled by the cry of another bird, and falls from a ledge into a pool of water (there's a lot of water in this movie), where he thrashes about like he's drowning -- and then he stops trying to swim, and simply allows himself to float. Get it?

Lots of eye candy, lots of mind candy. If you're a Buddhist, or in any way interested in Buddhism, you must not miss it for anything! If however you're not interested in the least about Buddhist philosophy, but ARE interested in cinematic excellence, see it. It's a masterpiece!

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23 out of 23 people found the following review useful:

Mesmerizing and compelling

Author: Alcibiade del Mezzogiorno (
4 February 2002

The first time I rented this movie, I saw it with a friend. We quit halfway through after groaning with boredom, then spent the rest of the evening making fun of it. A year later I tried it again, and have seen it five times since. It is extraordinary and is more gripping and absorbing each time I watch it.

There is of course no plot, only a loose story which illustrates, both in its whole and many fragmentary parts, core questions and ideas of Buddhism regarding the impermanence of all things and the corrupting nature of human desire. I know only a little about Buddhism, but what little I had read since the first unsuccessful viewing was probably what helped me see it subsequent times. Like Buddhism, it employs profound calm to upset some fundamental attitudes about the world and makes these disturbances fascinating: suffering, loss, the desire to hold on to things, and the vanity of intellectual growth.

This is however not by any stretch an "ideas" movie. It was made by a painter and remains very much a kind of tone-poem for the screen. I recommend it highly.

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13 out of 13 people found the following review useful:

a movie of incredibly beautiful compositions

Author: mkiem from San Jose, CA
11 June 1999

Yong-Kyun Bae is an art professor at a university in Korea. "Dharma" was virtually a solo effort by him and it took ten years to complete. The movie has little plot to speak of, and consists of a series of images, a slide show of moving images about a man's path to Enlightenment. They are strikingly beautiful and force the viewer to contemplate one's own life and existence. On the surface, all of the images are serene but underneath them lie deep power and a palpable spiritual yearning. As one reviewer aptly put it, "This movie is not about Zen, it is Zen."

Bae has made a second movie which was released in 1997. It is also very contemplative but unfortunately is nearly incomprehensible.

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11 out of 11 people found the following review useful:

Gorgeous Movie

Author: snffff from Iowa, USA
30 December 2000

This film is perhaps the most visually stunning piece that I have ever seen. While it runs incredibly slow, and there is perhaps 10 minutes of talking in the entire film, it is not likely intended to be excited. The plot follows three monks, an old wise monk, a young man who has sought him out for guidance, and a young child who the monk took in as an infant. The story, what little there is, shows the old man leading his two students on the path to Buddhist enlightenment before he dies. Again there is only about 10 minutes of speaking in the entire movie, which leaves a great deal to the imagination and interpretation of the audience. This film is highly visual, and stunningly so. For those interested in watching a film for it's artistic value, and for those who are patient enough to watch a film about Zen Buddhism, this is a great movie.

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9 out of 10 people found the following review useful:

A meditative picture

Author: (celito) from Berne, Switzerland
30 August 2003

I first saw this movie back in 1990, being played in Switzerland. to understand and appreciate this movie, you need to face the fact that western and eastern story-telling differ a lot. And since Bodhi-Dharma, who never appears in the picture, is the first patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism in China, meditation is not only a subject of the movie but also became an inspiration for the makers. The story is therefore told in an extremely slow manner, including several flashbacks. It's a perfect introduction to Zen, but also a relaxing and beautiful movie to enjoy alone.

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13 out of 18 people found the following review useful:

a quality film full of symbolism

Author: nedifico from Ann Arbor, MI
26 October 1999

The thing about Why has Bodhidharma Left for the East that struck me the most was the life of the little boy, Haejin. In particular, there are two connected scenes that were superbly done, and the strongest impression I got from Why... is the symbolism to be found within them. In the first of the two scenes, relatively early in the film Haejin picks up a rock off of the ground and, for no apparent reason, takes aim at a bird and hurls the rock at it. After he strikes the bird in the head and the bird falls to the ground, Haejin runs over to it and examines it. At this point, Haejin clearly is stricken with guilt and is remorseful for what he has done. Rushing back to the monastery, he avoids his Master and covertly hides the bird, seeking to nurse the bird back to health.

Later in the film, Haejin is swimming with some boys in a pool of water when the boys take to dunking Haejin under the water. As the scene progresses, Haejin is seen emerging from the water repeatedly, struggling, gasping for air and trying to free himself as best he can. Ostensibly, the boys around him do not see that they are harming Haejin; they dunk him underwater for fun, and the possibility that he could drown does not even occur to them. Although, after a few minutes of the dunking, some boys on the outskirts of the pool look on with worried faces, nobody expects that the action could seriously hurt Haejin, and accordingly nobody acts to help him.

The most fascinating thing about these two scenes is the parallelism: not particularly thinking of the possible consequences, young boys behave dangerously, and someone or something ends up getting hurt. Haejin thoughtlessly hurls the rock at the bird and damages it physically, whereas the boys at the pool gang up on Haejin and dunk him underwater, terrifying him emotionally. I think this is an issue of karma: Haejin does not think about the consequences of hurting the bird, which is mirrored by the boys' thoughtless torment of Haejin.

And yet, another really interesting thing about the situation was the difference in behavior that took place after the thoughtless violence. Immediately, Haejin realized that he had done something wrong, that he had wounded the bird terribly, so he rushed to take care of it and help it. Presumably, the boys who were harassing Haejin did no such thing, for in and after that scene we see neither guilt nor any attempts to mend fences on their part. The immediate question is then why: why does Haejin see the mistake he made and try to rectify his wrong whereas there is no such action by the boys? I think that the answer lies in the fact that the viewer is supposed to note that Haejin is a Buddhist, whereas the boys are from the "world," and it can safely be assumed that they do not follow the path of those in the monastery. The viewer is supposed to identify the distinct difference between those of the monastery and those from the world. The concept of the how the world is can be found in Haejin's master Hyegok's explanation to Haejin that the world outside the monastery is full of pain and thoughtlessness. (The scene at the pool is the point where the director of the film gives the viewer the opportunity to see Haejin in a situation that verifies what the Master said. Kibong had the same opportunity when he went home to see his mother). Although there is not much of an observable difference in the behavior of the boys during the violent behavior - for all are only little boys prone to stupidity - the emphasis is the Buddhist response to the situation as opposed to the non-Buddhist response.

Although I do not think that I understood everything in the film - when Master Hyegok was talking about really deep and spiritual things, he spoke quite fast and I did not really catch everything that he said - I think that I understood at least some of the movie. Overall, I enjoyed the film, particularly the scenery and the painstaking attention to detail. Most of all, I enjoyed leaving the film room thinking about it and trying to understand its symbolism and messages.

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5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:

Listen, as the question answers itself

Author: chaos-rampant from Greece
8 June 2011

How to approach beautiful, crazy Zen in a way that makes sense to us in the West? In a way that it, and this film, can actually inform us.

This problem, one of translation, was inherited by cinema. China conceived this poetry where humane dispassion is passionately sung about, where a flower looks back at us looking at it, but we know of Zen from Japan, us here most likely from their cinema. Perhaps even without knowing it.

But when the most fascinating form to express it in came along, so did Mao. Japan shouldered the task to do what the Chinese couldn't, with their affinity for broken symmetries and abstraction cultivated in the tea room, but even here we concede to a certain unfamiliarity that keeps these things at a distance. Teshigahara makes some general sense to us, but he's not really opened until we learn about ikebana.

How to bridge the rift then? Which is bigger than we think because we have the words, 'emptiness', 'desire', 'self', but mean by them wholly different things than the Buddhist.

Which is to say; having been brought up in a culture that distinguishes between the omnipresent creator who created something out of nothing and us as creatures separately placed in that world to atone for an original, ancestral sin (which means that the world itself is the punishment), or still swears by Descartes' old stratagem that we are because we think, how can we begin to wrap our heads around notions of emptiness as actually soothing? What are we to make of Zen poems that speak of death, which so terrifies us, as merely the echoes of bamboo flutes returning to the bamboo forest?

When Zen Master Ikkyu says that "I'd like to offer something to help you; but in Zen, we don't have a single thing", take his word for it. He's being a bit of a smartass, but that's because he wants you to listen for a moment. Which is to say that if we come to this looking for something, a taste of Zen that will guide us home, we'll likely have to struggle to stay awake long enough to realize that there is nothing to be offered.

More precisely, nothing to be taught. But if we become aware instead? If we come to embody what the film does? We are related with various aspects of the teachings here, how ego and desire bind us, how in stillness of mind we can free ourselves of those bonds. The illusionary burden of duality. But as the young monk meditates, a cow breaks free of her captivity. So what to do?

Down in the city, the monk offers up his alms' bowl in the middle of the busy marketplace. This is where stillness of mind attains proper meaning, in the sound and fury.

But again, if the film has few words to impart, and it does, like a visual mantra which in repetition calls for us to concentrate on the texture of the sound itself, what are we to take from it? Perhaps a few pointers to wisdom, mere signposts on the road.

Most importantly, meditational absorption (the actual Chan/Zen). Again we may be troubled by our inclination to regard images here as symbolic, as meaning something else, a flying crow or a cow leading a boy, when things are actually simpler; which is the most complex they can be. This is not a mystical work, things here mean what they are. If it is difficult to come to terms with this, it's because we've been so accustomed to grasp 'flower' by what stored ideas we have of 'flower'. Descartes again.

But to depart is to arrive, as the dying Zen master says. To send the mind out is to see it come back again. Isn't that cool? So how to depart from established notions? How to look at the flower as it looks back at us, to actually do this?

One of the great contributions of Zen to this conundrum is the koan, the enigmatic phrase whose purpose is to tie our tongue so that we may reflect in silence. There is a koan asked of the novice in this, which points towards the kensho, the awakening of the true self. The title of the film is another. Life is the most complex; how to gather all the different notes we can feel played out in us into a single harmonious music? And how to play that music, actively, joyfully, as it plays us?

There is no right or wrong answer to these, other than what we embody through our experience. Embodying this is enough. And by this I don't mean a fancier version of being 'mesmerized'. I mean be one with it, like the calligrapher becomes one with his brush, the haiku poet with his blank paper. Hear what is said, then be quiet as the question answers itself.

Something to meditate upon.

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5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:

A film requiring multiple viewings

Author: peter07 from Seoul, Korea
19 November 2007

I first saw this film several years ago, and I was told that it was so hard to understand. Then I studied more about Zen Buddhism, and slowly but surely, I did begin to understand.

The movie is considered the best film about Buddhism, and rightly so. The director, a professor at the Buddhist Dongguk University in Seoul, took seven years to make it and used non-actors to play the parts.

He recently remastered the image and dialogue in a new DVD release, but unfortunately, no extras or featurettes. This film is one of the greatest made, and I feel sorry that it hasn't gotten the proper DVD treatment it deserves.

Nonethless, this movie is a meditation about Buddhism, life and death, and our raison d'etre. Definitely not to be missed.

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6 out of 8 people found the following review useful:

One of the best movie of the last 20 years

Author: mk-148 from France
19 July 2006

How to express the deep gratefulness I feel for this unknown and yet fantastic director, Bae Yong Kyun ; this movie offers an experience that makes you feel that a director is considering you, the audience, as a very refined person ; unlike most of the movies which put you down, this one shows you the deep impact of one's life. This is one of the only movies settled in a Buddhist context which doesn't show any spirituality or doesn"t give any message ; but is a pure and direct experience of sanity through this misused medium which is cinema. I put him on the same level as Ozu and Bresson, which is nowadays not happening anymore... Everything is like a product like "Samsara" which gives you a spiritual message, but has any cinematographic interest except being a post card for visiting Himalayas. So when someone like Bae Yong Kyun, who respects his audience enough not to show something (but gives to watch), doesn't use music to pull emotions out of you, doesn't deliver any message, doesn't try to charm your eyes with beautiful landscapes, this deserves to be acclaimed. He shows us that cinema can be an art as valuable as the others, the source of beauty that poetry has always captured in life for the readers. Thank you mister Bae Yong Kyun.

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4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:

Beauty in every sense

Author: Ajith Joseph from India
2 March 2010

One of the beautiful films I have ever seen. I am writing this review not for describing any aspects of the film. The movie is just beautiful. That is what it is. Whenever you start opening up something, its beauty is gone. If you think that you don't like the film, then just leave it.

Do not look at the film closely. Do not concentrate on the film. Then you cannot enjoy the film.

It is like a river. You could never feel the beauty of river by concentration.

You could feel its beauty when you flow with it.

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