Combustible Celluloid
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With: Yi Pan-Yong, Sin Won-Sop, Hae-Jin Huang
Written by: Bae Yong-Kyun
Directed by: Bae Yong-Kyun
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Korean with English subtitles
Running Time: 145
Date: 09/12/1989

Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Koan Heads

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This film from South Korea has a strong cult following; it received a number of votes in the 1992 Sight and Sound poll for one of the greatest films ever made. Directed by Bae Yong-Kyun, the (uncut) film runs 145 minutes, following three characters, with little in the way of plot. An aging Zen master (Yi Pan-Yong) is on the verge of dying and refuses medical help. His younger apprentice (Sin Won-Sop) questions his faith and wonders whether he will be capable of taking over for his master. And an orphaned boy (Hae-Jin Huang), who lives with them, tries to atone for purposefully wounding a bird with a rock. There's very little dialogue. The point of the film is to get lost in the images, moments and ideas. I must admit that most of the time I was also thinking of two more recent films that affected me more strongly, Martin Scorsese's Kundun (1997) and Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence (2006). Compared to these two, Bae's pacing seems too rushed, and his cutting too fast to instill a sense of tranquility. Still, I occasionally found myself lost in thought and found the film an overall worthwhile experience. The title is a "koan," or a riddle designed to be pondered during meditation.

DVD Details: Milestone Film and Video, in association with New Yorker, has released a new DVD of the uncut film, restoring about eight minutes. Aside from a 16x9 enhanced picture and improved subtitles, there are no extras.

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