Nine years ago Moon Chang-yong and Jeon Jin were in Ladakh, Kashmir – a mountainous region 100 miles or so northeast of where the Dalai Lama lives, and less than 50 miles from Tibet’s westernmost extremity. They were filming a documentary about practitioners of traditional medicine in the various regions of Asia. Their subject was an ageing healer practising in a remote village up in the mountains not far from a Buddhist monastery.
The film crew started to get fascinated by the continued presence of a four-year-old boy who seemed to spend a lot of time with the old man. The boy, a young monk, and the healer seemed to enjoy a special bond. Instinct told the film crew that here was a story worth following, and they started a second documentary in parallel with their story about traditional medicine.
As they followed the strange couple, it emerged that the old man was a sort of spiritual guide for the boy. Later, as the boy became more articulate, and began to describe in remarkable detail a part of Tibet he had never seen in this life, it emerged that the boy was a Rimpoche – a term often used just as a term of respect for a senior monk, but also having the specific meaning of a reincarnated sage. In the case of this boy, in a previous life he had been a noted teacher in the region of Eastern Tibet called Kham.
The boy was duly enthroned, aged 6, and led a bizarre double existence studying at the local school and playing football with his friends and occasionally bestowing blessings on pilgrims at the local temple. All the while the old man acted as the boy’s physical and spiritual guardian, having given up his medical practice in order to serve the young saint.
The camera follows these two simple individuals, quietly documenting their special relationship, the easy exchange of conversation and laughter that they share with each other. Over the eight years that they were filming the couple, the boy was asked to leave the monastery he had joined and had to find a new place for spiritual growth. He decided he wanted to try to visit the place he had inhabited in his previous life – and thus, perhaps, the title of the movie: Becoming Who I Was.
Man and boy decide to go on an epic journey, in which they are joined by he camera crew. The journey is from Ladakh, via Varanasi to the Tibetan border adjacent to Kham, in the Indian region of Sikkim, to the East of Nepal. The journey, over 1,200 miles, takes two months, via train, bus, foot and whatever lifts they could hitch.
Although the film crew would have been able to assist the pilgrims during the journey, they deliberately held back, providing no additional funding and simply travelling the same way as their subjects. Some 800 hours of footage filmed over the eight years was edited down to the 95 minutes we see in this gentle and moving finished product.
Jeon Jin (전진), Moon Chang-yong (문창용) Becoming Who I Was (다시 태어나도 우리, 2016)
Becoming Who I Was screened at the 2017 BFI London Film Festival.