Saturday, May 3, 2014

Film Atlas (South Korea): Mandala

Country: South Korea
Title: Mandala / Mandara (1981)
A bus slowly drifts across an emptiness furrowed by two parallel lines: a dirt road and a series of telephone poles. At a security checkpoint Buddhist monk Pobun comes to the aid of Jisan, himself a monk, albeit a rather unorthodox one. Pobun and Jisan agree to walk the next leg of their journey together, a decision they will repeat again during intermittent encounters throughout their lives. Though both sincerely search for enlightenment they take very different routes: Pobun practicing asceticism, seclusion and discipline, Jisan experimenting with worldliness, intemperance and outreach. They converse about faith and doubt, doctrine and practice, virtue and sin, solitude and community, men and women, dreams and memories from their secular lives. Though Pobun initially regards Jisan as a willful eccentric unable to keep to the straight and narrow path, he is fascinated by him and gradually comes to appreciate his conflicted, quixotic, and yet profoundly spiritual nature. They part for the last time after a night together in a lonely mountain temple, leaving Pobun shaken and, perhaps, no more enlightened than before.

Mandala is, in my opinion, the great cinematic exploration of Buddhism and one of the deepest, most provocative and illuminating dialectical works in any medium. It helps that Pobun and Jisan are never mere symbols of theoretically opposed philosophies, but flawed, psychologically rich and fundamentally unfathomable men whose timeless friendship feels instantly destined despite interruptions that span irreplaceable years. But it isn’t for all tastes, as the film consists almost entirely of the ebb and flow of conversations on questions like whether it is better to isolate oneself and avoid temptations or actively confront and resist them. These debates are set against backdrops of rare beauty in plains, forests, mountains and temples all across South Korea in the full glory of every season. Im Kwon-Taek, perhaps Korea’s most prolific and acclaimed director, has an impeccable eye for the way images compliment ideas, not necessarily in a literal way, but through their mutual intangible capacities to instill us with a sense of peace and symmetry and yet a longing for something beyond.  Few films are so daring in their spiritual scope; so unapologetic about grappling with big, arguably unanswerable questions. Even fewer films are so successful.

My Favorites:
The Housemaid (1960)
Mandala (1981)
Stray Bullet
Secret Sunshine
Memoires of Murder
Old Boy
Peppermint Candy
Take Care of My Cat
The President's Last Bang
Castaway on the Moon
Save the Green Planet!
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Joint Security Area
The Host

Major Directors:
Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, Kim Jee-woon, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Ki-Duk, Im Kwon-taek, Hong Sang-soo

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