Mark Morris from Cambridge University’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies discusses two films shown at the Barbican on Sunday.
The International Buddhist Film Festival (IBFF) chose the Barbican Centre for its venue between 7-17 May. Two remarkable Korean films stood out among an eclectic mix of documentary and narrative films.
The 1949 Hometown of the Heart (Maum-ui kohyang – 마음의 고향) was the only film made by Yoon Yong-gyu. The Festival programme was mistaken to suggest that only two films made before the Korean War have survived. Among the films made between 1945 and 1950 now preserved at the Korean Film Archive, some may have greater historical significance, such as the first post-liberation film, Hurrah! For Freedom (Jayu mansei, 1946). Yet none come close to the artistry and narrative power of Hometown of the Heart, easily one of the finest films ever made in Korea and just as easily one of the greatest films ever made about childhood and maternal longing.
A young boy has been left in the care of a mountain temple. He longs for his long disappeared mother, but goes about his daily chores as apprentice monk without any great fuss. One day a young widow and her mother-in-law come to visit the temple complex. They are there to request prayers for the dead husband of the beautiful widow. The widow is played by Choi Eun-hee in only the third of her 117-film career. The widow notices the boy and eventually she talks her mother and the head of the temple into allowing her to adopt him, and take the boy back to what would be a privileged life in Seoul. Things don’t work out that way. By film’s end the boy packs up his meagre belongings, and the last we see of him is a small figure hurrying down a dusty train in search of his real mother back there someplace in the capital.
The mountain scenery, the sparse temple complex, the simple but believable characters are all captured in black-and white by camera work that later cinematographers have tried to equal in their ‘Buddhism films’.
Director Jeong Ji-young’s Beyond the Mountain (Sansani busoejin irum i-eo – 산산이 부서진 이름이여) from 1991 has screened on previous IBFF programmes. This was apparently its UK debut. Jeong was one of the most significant directors during the difficult years of transition to the democracy now seemingly under threat from a right-wing president and his powerful allies. Many people will have seen one of Jeong’s early 1990s films: Southern Army (Nambugun, 1990), about the radical partisans left behind the battle lines during the Korean War; White Badge (Hayan jeonjaeng, 1992) about Korea’s Vietnam vets; or the cinemaniac nostalgia film, The Life and Death of the Hollywood Kid from 1994. Both Southern Army and White Badge treated controversial topics that couldn’t have been filmed only a few years earlier. It was in between the making of these two historical, and politically significant, works that Jeong made his Buddhism film Beyond the Mountain, based on a story by Korea’s unofficial poet laureate, Ko Un.
Close by a mountain temple, with its small hierarchical world of aged master, middle age / middle-management monks and young acolytes, is an even more remote nunnery. The story brings the generations of older monks and nuns into conflict with the young apprentices of both sexes, as the mutual attraction felt by one young monk and one young nun brings matters to a crisis. The suspense lies in whether the boy will get the girl, but also in whether the religion will claim both or neither. In the end, the girl chooses to turn away from the world out there, while the young monk heads off, like the little boy in Hometown of the Heart, to experience whatever the world chooses to do with him.
The rich golden colours of autumn then bleak winter in the mountains have never been better conveyed on film, and make a more recent ‘Buddhist film’ such as Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … then Spring 2003 look almost kitsch.
Both these films take their place in a prestigious tradition of Korean films dealing with Buddhism. Some examples: Mandala (1981) and Come, Come Upward (1989) by Im Kwon-taek; Jang Sun-woo’s strange film, one more Ko Un adaptation, Hwa-om-kyeong (1993); Bae Yong-gyun’s haunting Why Has Bodhi-dharma Left for the East 1989. There is a 2003 remake of Hometown – The Little Monk (Joo Kyung-jung, 2002) – and even the two gangsters-and-monks comedies, Hi! Dharma one (Park Cheol-kwan, 2001) and two (Yook Sang-hyo, 2004). Even animation has its own mini-classic, Oseam 2003.
Back in the bad old days before the Korean film industry had yet to revive from the long sleep of political interference, poor investment and fan apathy, Beyond the Mountain only sold something like 10,000 tickets in Seoul. Let’s hope that by now more Buddhist film buffs have seen it — and Hometown of the Heart — than the Seoulites of yesteryear.