Bae Chang-ho’s The Dream is based on a story from the Samguk Yusa, a story that Yi Kwang-su worked up into a short novel. Although the tale is set in the late Silla dynasty, its message is timeless.
The story starts with a weary and impoverished traveller (played by Ahn Sung-ki) trudging through the snow in the pitch-black wintery countryside, finally arriving at a Buddhist temple where a young monk is sweeping up the snow, not very diligently. It emerges that this is the temple where the traveller once spent 10 years of his life, and we travel back in time to the days of his youth, where he was Jo-shin, a young monk sweeping the temple yard. Appropriately, in this flashback it is a sunny springtime, and the temple is bursting with red azaleas as the monks excitedly prepare to welcome a local dignitary in order to celebrate the betrothal of his daughter Dal-lae (a stunning beauty played by Hwang Shin-hye) to a dashing, handsome young warrior.
Jo-shin has a close relationship with the chief monk, who occasionally raps him on his bald pate for lack of respect, but is happy to have him massage his back in the light of the moon. It is a life of stark discipline, the monks meditating in silence both day and night as a senior monk looks on – a life of discipline well captured in a scene set in the meditation hall, where the lighting subtly changes to denote a whole 24 hours of silent mental discipline. In such an environment the colourful procession of the wealthy patron, sundry attendants and the young beauty herself is likely to turn the mind of an impressionable young monk, and sure enough the young man prays a highly inappropriate prayer to Buddha: to be allowed to enjoy just one day with the girl.
He decides to take matters into his own hands. As her father and husband-to-be make polite conversation, Dal-lae makes herself ready. The camera lingers lovingly (but tastefully) over her upper body as she sits in her bath singing her favourite song. Jo-shin is also watching until he can no longer bear it, climbing into the bath and plucking the young blossom for himself.
What follows is a slow but inexorable decline from grace: elopement, initial prosperity as the young couple set themselves up as purveyors of luxury fabrics, blessed not only with good fortune but two children. But the disappointed husband-to-be is in pursuit, and a monk from the temple wants to share in Jo-shin’s pleasures. Death, jealousy and revenge is not far away, and as the decline picks up pace Dal-lae goes though terrible hardships to feed Jo-shin’s opium addiction. Even that is not the bottom of the decline, and the tale gets even darker before we can get to resolution.
Although the tale is set in times when Buddhism was the state religion, this is a tale with a universal, even Christian message: the pleasures of the flesh can lead to destruction; but true repentance can bring redemption. As is the case with the other movies in this retrospective, we are given a message of hope – that people can come to realise the important things in their life, and that revenge is not necessary to set things to right.
Of course the title of the movie tells us that what we are about to see may not be reality, and it comes as no surprise when Jo-shin wakes up from his dream which, though is started as simple wish fulfilment rapidly became a nightmare. And although we know that Jo-shin will eventually wake up, we nevertheless follow with him in his journey, wondering how much further he can fall. We relish the warm-hearted story-telling, the beauty of the cinematography and of the two leading characters, and enjoy the simple morality tale.
Bae Chang-ho (배창호) The Dream (꿈, 1990)