Yong-Kyun Bae

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

6.8 The People in White (1995)
7.7 Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left For The East (1989)

Yong-Kyun Bae (Korea, 1951), a painter and art scholar by training, He directed Geomeuna Dange Huina Baekseong/ The People in White (1995) in the slow and deep style of filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Tarr, a philosophical essay about life, memory, identity and death, and perhaps an allegory of Korea's history. Set at night during a military emergency, it visualizes the stream of consciousness of a lost soul wandering through his past. It's a pilgrimage among the ruins of his childhood and of Korean civilization. The film is just a bit incoherent and aimless. The film is set at an identified time, "many years from now". In the evening, a man walks into a decaying inn that at first seems abandoned. He finds a woman. He asks her for a room. She replies the hotel is being remodeled and warns him that it's dangerous to walk aroound. Suddenly, military tanks rumble in, shaking the building. She serves him a traditional liquor and talks sadly about the town's situation. He tells her that he left during the war, 40 years earlier. She offers him her son's room, since he is away. She is worried about her son. He tells her that his name is Alex Kaufman, but that in reality he has forgotten his real name. He has spent more than 20 years in a mental asylum. He says he understands English. He doesn't remember who his mother was. He remembers a little girl named Sue-e. He says he is not sure of anything. She repeats that it's dangerous outside and we hear the police's loudspeaker alerting the citizens to stay inside because of some terrorists who attacked with weapons and tanks. The police spokesman proudly proclaims that they have been successful in restoring peace and security. All the roads are closed. She tells him that she plans to refurbish the inn some day and make it really nice. The inn looks like a cave. He walks around the ruins. He hears a noise and she tells him that it's a drunkard who sells books to children. He stares outside and sees the flashing lights of a dance club across the street. He thinks this is his hometown because he was found there as a child by US troops during the war. She tells him that he could be mistaking the town for some other town since there were many refugees from other towns going through it. He was adopted in the USA. and he thinks that both of his adoptive parents died when he was 13. Many years later he visited the man who had rescued him but he had dementia and didn't remember anything. Staring at his reflection in a shard of glass, he tells her that he found letters that seemed to point at that town. He then reads aloud one of the letters which describes the horrific train bombing in which his family perished and after which he was found. All his childhood he had nightmares about that incident.
The film abruptly shifts outdoors. Alex is standing with another man in front of an abandoned factory. The other man tells him the story of how he used to conduct a train and saved some prisoners. Alex asks him if he remembers an episode that took lace 40 years earlier, the first time that he saw death. There is noise of machines and steam coming out of pipes. Alex asks him about the home that Alex remembers as his childhood home. The man follows him pushing his bycycles but cannot help him, confessing to be only a humble caretaker. The man only remembers the case of a truck driver who was a chronic drunkard and died leaving behind a little daughter.
Back to the inn, the innkeeper asks him if his memories are real, doubting in general that people can retain the memory of facts. She tells him that he is nothing.
The camera focuses on 18 workers sitting silently in a truck, being transported somewhere.
It is still night. Alex then meets a blind man in the fields outside town. Again Alex tells the blind man details of his childhood home which had a well. Again the blind man cannot help. He calls Alex a ghost. They pass in front of the factory and we hear the noise of the workers.
He falls asleep and has a nightmare. The innkeeper is awake and still anxious about her son, who is a reckless motorcycle rider.
Alex walks outside again and sees a little girl take the hand of the blind man and drag him away. She says her terminally sick father told her to do so. Then we see a flashback in which a little boy named Heo leaves his home while explosions are rocking the town.
A madman hiding on a roof points a gun at Alex and demands a cigarette. The madman says he's been waiting a long time for a man walking alone at night and introduces himself as a condemned murderer. Alex now confesses that he killed two cops while on drugs, and was sent to mental asylum for about 20 years but spared the electric chair. We then see a man talking cryptically about fireworks and a train. Alex runs away frantically. We see a procession of men wearing white clothes and carrying some kind of statue.
Back to the inn, the innkeeper doesn't answer the phone that keeps ringing. Alex picks up the phone and a mysterious whispering female voice narrates episodes of her life, in particular that she was raised by her grandmother. And she asks him if he remembers all of that. She mentions that she lived 40 years full of hatred. Meanwhile, the dance club is still radiating its flashing lights that bounce on the walls of the room. We then see vintage photographs taken near a well.

Dharmaga Tongjoguro Kan Kkadalgun/ Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left For The East (1989), whose title is an unanswerable zen riddle, is a slow, meditative and contemplative film that mainly relies on images, not on dialogues, and is drenched in symbolism. The action mixes reality, dreams and flashback. The film can be read in wildly opposite ways. One can speculate that the death of the master is the ultimate lesson that teaches both the young monk and the child the ultimate meaning of life; both rising above their fate. Or one can speculate that the death of the old master liberates the younger monk so he can leave the delusion of the Zen koans, and return to the real world, while at the same time the child, being an abandoned orphan who has never known any other life, has no choice but to become the new master; both simply victims of fate.

Haejin, an orphan boy, Kibong, a young monk, and Hyegok An old man, Hyegok, calls for Haejin and then drinks tea. A young man, Kibong, is sawing a tree and cuts his finger. The child catches a bird with a stone while another bird watches. The young man returns to the adobe carrying firewood. Then he lies on floor and stares at a portrait. During a fireside chat the child asks what lies beyond the mountain and the old master answers: the "world". Haejin is an abandoned orphan adopted by the old master and has lived in this isolated hermitage all his life. The child asks why they have left the world and the old master expalains it in Buddhist terms (to escape greed, passion, etc). The old master pulls an aching tooth of the child. The child keeps the bird in a cage. The young man smokes and drinks. He dreams of a young woman hanging clothes and an old blind woman (his wife and his mother). In another flashback we learn that Kibong asked a Buddhist monk for advice and this monk told him about the old monk who lived alone with a child in this remote hermitage. During a stormy night the young man asks the old master whether he sinned by leaving his family behind in order to leave the material world. Hyegok is useless because he replies with abstract cryptic sentences, such as his two fundamental koans: "What is my original face before my father and mother were conceived?" and "When the moon takes over in your heart, where does the master of my being go?" One day the child Haejin finds his bird dead. He buries it under a rock. The child overhears the old master lecturing the young monk by the river. The child treasures the tooth and the old master scolds him for being attached to a body part that does not belong to his body anymore. Haejin has a nightmare: children play in a pond and try to drown him. Haejin returns to the place where he buried the bird and finds finds the bird's corpse devoured by worms. Disgusted and remorseful, he dives in the pond and lets himself float lifeless in the water. When he wakes up and walks ashore, he cries. It is getting dark and the child seems lost in the forest, but he is saved by a ox with a constantly ringing bell: he simply follows the animal that walks rapidly through the forest. At some point the child collapses and falls asleep. He dreams that a woman is rescuing him but it is actually the ox mooing at him. The young monk Kibong takes the bus to town and walks around the frenzied and noisy market begging for alms with his little bowl. He uses the money to pay for medicine for the old man, who is getting sicker and sicker. Kibong has a vision of a boy (himself) carying his cart through a crowd in a narrow alley wrapped in smoke. It's a flashback to his former life. He goes to visit an ailing blind woman who is winding up an old clock: his mother. She senses his presence and calls his name Yong Nan but he leaves without a word. Later he meditates on his own decision to leave his fate behind with references to the life of the Buddha: "The departure is the process of returning... He came back inside all of us... It is easy to fight against one's fate, difficult to learn to love it... who is Buddha and who isn't he?" He is torn between his Buddhist beliefs and the remorse of having abandoned parents, wife and children. He has decided of going back to the real world, but the stern master scolds him. The problem is that the old master Hyegok rambles on and on with incomprehensbile koans like "Are Hell and Heaven different?" Kibong leaves but get caught in roaring rapids and almost dies, rescued by the old master at the cost of making the old master even sicker. The old master is in fact dying and gives Kibong instruction for the burial, except that it is just another incomprehensible koan. The old master meditates that "I am insubstantial in the universe but in the universe there is nothing that is not me". On the full-moon night Kibong takes the child to a ceremony/performance at a temple in the valley, leaving the old master alone at home. The core of the ceremony is the pantomime by a ghostly figure who resembles the old master himself. They return to the old master's hermitage when it's already very dark and can see his face behind a lighted window. We see the ending of the temple's ceremony with the ghostly protagonist walking away. The old master is dead. As per his instructions, Kibong loads the corpse in a chest and carries it on his shoulders to a funeral pyre. The child at home hears the cry of a bird. At sunrise Kibong is surrounded by ashes, his face painted black by the charred firewood. He collects some of the bone fragments, grinds them, and then spreads them over a creek. In the middle of the night he wakes up hearing the chant of the child. Kibong leaves the temple for good, promising to the child that someone from the nearby temple will come. Alone at home the child decides to burn the old master's things. A bird that has been watching him flies away, high in the sky.
(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )