A lady fugitive on the run from corrupt government officials is joined in her endeavors by an unambitious painter and skilled Buddhist monks.A lady fugitive on the run from corrupt government officials is joined in her endeavors by an unambitious painter and skilled Buddhist monks.A lady fugitive on the run from corrupt government officials is joined in her endeavors by an unambitious painter and skilled Buddhist monks.
Although I follow a different branch of Buddhist practice, I am grateful for Zen tradition. We may find elsewhere similar notions of emptiness as the essence of form, but none that sing what it means to be fully, vitally empty with the passionate ardor of Zen.
The great Sufi love poets like Rumi also approached the mystery of what it means to unveil the world rather than explain it, but what awareness graced them was intuitive, desert inspired. Tao addressed the reflections of the cosmos in the evening dewdrops, what it means to look at a flower looking back at us, but that unity of far and close is enclosed in a perfect circle of yin-yang. Zen by contrast blossoms in the asymmetry of what spontaneously arises and disappears; and what the Zen Masters so eloquently talk about is what they have personally awakened to through their ardent practice of silence. The Enso circle that symbolizes this Awakening is often deliberately painted crude, as pointing to the imperfection of form it embraces.
So we have here a sweeping affair of political intrigue and unjust persecution in a China of empires. All this is in tacit understanding that these hierarchies will come to pass, like their forebears. The film after all opens in a deserted fort, in the mansion of a general ruined by civil war. Possibly this depiction of a corrupt aristocracy blinded the censors of the time to what it actually reflected of their own regime. Czech filmmakers were masters of this ubiquity, by situating their griefs with Soviet tyranny against a not-so-distant Nazi oppressor.
But the film is not content with this, which after all the Japanese had delivered decades ago in much more refined form. So what is the Zen touch here?
Although it's adequate as the former, here the film completely breaks apart. It's not enough that the Buddhist monks are made to be little more than godly vehicles who conveniently show up at the right moment to aid the oppressed with their superhuman abilities of kung fu (which is after all a valid extension of Zen practice), or whatever it is that these monks represent is reduced to the status of benevolent protectors.
What is actually surprising is that none of the characters who are met with this way of life are imparted with anything. What perfect opportunity squandered for example, to make the young portrait painter realize that 'knowledge' and 'wisdom' are not to be found in books. And how is it that the two fugitives leave the monastery with only the knowledge of deadly kung fu and none of the compassionate mind to control it?
It is not surprising then that this kind of film, that has reduced everything to appearance and platitude, would go on in the end to actually depict nirvana. The image intended to be transcendent transcends nothing, not merely because nirvana is a state of mind beyond words, but because ultimately there is nothing to transcend. Whatever mock transcendence in the image of the Buddha we find here means nothing.
- Jun 15, 2011