Considered by many to be Im Kwok-taek’s first masterpiece, truly a stunning and contemplative film…
‘Buddha’s not just in the temples.’
In Mandala, two monks become acquainted on the road as they search for their enlightenment, but their approach could hardly be more different. Pob-un, a young monk on a break between winter and summer meditation (played by a very youthful looking but already 20-year veteran of film, Ahn Sung-see, Festival, The Taebaek Mountains, Nowhere To Hide) practices Asceticism, abstaining from worldly pleasures. The older, so-called ‘renegade monk’ Ji-san (Jun Moo-sang) is his opposite in every way, with loutish demeanour he enjoys the pleasures of the flesh, he constantly drinks.
His status has been forced upon him. After succumbing to worldly pleasures with a girl from a local village, he was blamed for her friend’s rape. Even after he was exonerated, his reputation was shot, and he followed he to Seoul where he indulged in a hedonistic world sex, bars and discos, yet still quickly found it left him as hollow as before.
But Ji-san is a contradiction. While Pob-un is reluctant to pander to middle classes use of rituals as a sign of their standing in a community rather than true belief, Ji-san is happy to belligerently and publically expose it for what it is. We hear of charitable, almost saintly deeds undertaken off screen, yet on screen we see him meet up again with his old girlfriend, now a prostitute in a red light district of Seoul.
Such encounters are too much for Pob-un to bear, and he quickly returns to the temple. Preoccupied himself by thoughts of the flesh; the girl he left behind to become a monk some six years earlier, and the mother who for all intensive purposes abandoned him as a child. But events bring them back together…
From the opening of Mandala, director Im Kwon-taek imbues the film with a still, meditative quality to match the films themes. A long take of a bus driving into frame in an immensely beautiful but equally desolate landscape, along the road that will bring them together. The paces matches the tone of the film perfectly.
Cinematography by Jung Il-sung, a regular collaborator with Im, helps add to the lyrical quality of the film, weaving these small, almost insignificant figures into grandiose panoramas. The composition is elegant, but challenging, thrusting figures into the central foreground out-of-focus, really using the 2:35 ratio widescreen to it’s fullest effect.
Presenting the film in person at the BFI Southbank as part of a retrospective in his honor, Run Far, Fly High, Im announced we was in quite a Buddhist frame of mind when he came to make the film. Based on Kim Song-dong’s bestselling book, at Mandala’s heart is a theological discussion on two very different paths to nirvana; that their take on mandala, or sacred place, takes them to very different environments.
Yet the power of Im’s film is that you don’t have to fully understand Buddhism to understand or enjoy the film. In fact, he’s perviously said had no special knowledge, but it was his determination to make the film that forced him to research it more closely. Where the original novel may have been more critical, Im backs away from judgements. There’s no essence of a right or wrong way. Indeed such themes of belief in religion are universal, and something Im has returned to several times, particularly in films like Come, Come, Come Upward (rather a female slant on Mandala) and Daughter of the Flames.
Interestingly, it seems for Pob-un that the biggest obstacle in progressing his quest is confronting the very things he’s run away from: his ex-girlfriend and his non-existent relationship with his mother. And here lies a truth rooted as much in the secular world as it is the spiritual: that we cannot progress in our lives without dealing with our past head on.
A stunningly beautiful and thoughtful film, I’d admit to being blown away by Mandala. A true masterpiece.
The Im Kwon-taek panel interview, with Hangul Celluloid, MiniMiniMovies, ‘F-Word’ magazine and CineAsia_online.
Mandala was shown as part of Im Kwon-teak: Run Far, Fly High, a retrospective of the director’s work, and has been released on DVD as part of the Im Kwon-taek collection.
Originally published 29 October 2012.
Distributor: Blue Kino (SK)
Edition: Im Kwon-taek Collection – 4-DIsc DVD Box Set (2012)
Presented as part of a prestigious 4-dvd boxset with an accompanying book. Mandala has been lovingly restored and in well presented.
This boxset also includes Wangshibri (A Bygone Romance) (1976), Jokbo (The Genealogy) (1978) and Jakgo (Pursuit of Death) (1980). Each film comes with a commentary by Im with a notable film critic. (Jakgo also has a second commentary with the screenwriter.) Unusually, these have been English subtitled, and even the book has an English segment.
A (fairly) expensive but rather worthy addition to any Asian film fans collection!