January 26, 2005 -- This is a beautiful, haunting Korean film about a Buddhist monk and his acolyte living on a small lake. The film could be watched with no sound or subtitles. There is very little dialogue in it. The story is conveyed quite well through images alone during most of the film. Most of those images are very beautiful ones.
Although the story has only a handful of characters and everything takes place in a small area, it encompasses a surprisingly large chunk of the human experience, including lust, love, jealousy, murder, suicide and redemption. It has important things to say about the difficulty of teaching and the elusiveness of wisdom.
The photography is magnificent, capturing the beautiful mountain landscapes in loving detail. The film is a bit slow-paced in places, but a haunting story nonetheless. The story follows the seasons of a man's life. As a child, (played by Jong-ho Kim), he is taught a lesson in compassion by his master (Yeong-su Oh) when his childish pranks become cruel. In the summer, the monk, now 17 (Young-min Kim), proves no match for the power of lust. The monk later goes through many changes in his life before he finally returns to the lake twice more as an adult (Ki-duk Kim) to find his final destiny. Throughout all the turbulent changes in the young monk's life, the pond remains the same. Men change, the earth abides.
A lot of films originating in Asia don't really show a world view that is all that different than that shown Western films. This is no doubt comforting to some, but not very instructive. This is one Eastern film that shows a world view that is very different than the Western view of the universe. In the west, we are all about assigning blame. We are all about retribution and punishment. Our response to the 9/11 attacks shows this clearly. This film has some punishment in it, but it is more about learning from one's mistakes and becoming a better person by seeking wisdom through mental and moral purification. The movie doesn't just give lip service to Buddhism, as so many films do, it demonstrates Buddhist principles clearly. One way the film demonstrates those principles is in a sequence that would never happen in a western film. It is the strangest, longest, most unlikely police arrest sequence that I can recall seeing in a film.
The movie was filmed at Jusan Pond in North Kyungsang Province, Korea. The pond is a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. The story is told entirely in the context of the lake. The camera never strays from this magnificent location. The temple in which the master and monk stay is built on a raft which floats on the lake. At first, it appears to be built on a small island, but some shots clearly show the small building drifting past the trees. Ornate gates on the shore open for each of the film's distinctive five segments. This film rates a B+.
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