Buddhism in Film Mini-Festival

Come, Come, Come Upwards / 아제 아제 바라 아제 / Aje Aje Bara Aje
When you watch a lot of movies you often come across articles and reviews that talk about how Buddhism inspired this film or that. How an actor or actress had “zen" like patience during the filming or some other platitude. These comments are more often than not “throw-away" phrases that are used to ascribe spirituality to a film that it otherwise might not deserve. There are, film festivals with Buddhism as their main focus, however, they don’t come around that often. In fact, the last series was way back in 2012 with the International Buddhist Film Festival hosted by our friends at Asia Society.
To help fill a void this series is another modest “mini-festival" with 5 films that can hopefully cover some of the basics of Buddhism in films. A few are about Buddhism directly while others are about an imagined make-believe paradise taken to be inspired by Buddhism. In any event, these films will hopefully jump start a conversation about Buddhism as it interacts with and inspired popular culture.
This week is Im Kwon-Taek’s “Come, Come, Come, Upwards"
Not surprisingly most films about Buddhist Religious Life are about Monks and Monasteries. Stories about the religious experience of Nuns are few and far between. There are some films, however, that are specifically about the life of nuns and the experiences of female religious adherents.
Come, Come, Come Upwards / 아제 아제 바라 아제 / Aje Aje Bara Aje by Korean Master Im Kwon-taek / 임권택 / 林權澤 in one of these films. For those of you who have never heard of him, Im is a prolific director responsible for dozens of critically acclaimed films including 2000's Chunhyang / 춘향뎐. Come, Come, Come Upwards is a 1989 film that follows two women in the orbit of a South Korean convent. The film depicts the struggles that both women face in and outside the cloistered life that is required of them. Personal and provocative Come, Come, Come Upwards is an important work in Korean Cinema.
If you’re interested in other films by Im Kwon-Taek you should check out the South Korea Film Archive’s IKT page on YouTube.
The Legend of the Mountain / 山中传奇
King Hu / 胡金銓
A Master of the so-called Wuxia / 武俠 subgenre, King Hu has come down to us as one of the most influential film directors. “A Touch of Zen" is his signature Masterpiece related to Chan / (zen) Buddhism but the newly restored The Legend of the Mountain is a less known and slightly darker version of contemplative Buddhist practice. It also directs some of the best special effects related to Metaphysical Revelation I’ve seen in any religion.
Come, Come, Come Upwards / 아제 아제 바라 아제 / Aje Aje Bara Aje
Im Kwon-taek / /
It will probably not surprise anyone to know gender bias is also reflected in movies about Buddhist Religious life. The vast majority of films are about monks in monasteries as opposed to nuns in convents. The life of women religious is often obscured, marginalized and forgotten. That’s why Come, Come, Come Upwards is so appealing. Im Kwon-taek’s tale of a South Korean Convent and life of the women who are part of that community is both revealing and brutally honest.
Lost Horizon
Frank Capra
Nearly bankrupting Columbia Pictures, Lost Horizon is still considered by some to be the most expensive movie ever made in Hollywood. In fact, it took 5 years to recoup the film’s production cost which is practically unheard of in the film business. Lost Horizon depicts Shangri-La (that’s right THAT Shangri-La) a mythical utopia deep in the Himalaya Mountains. Although not about Buddhism directly it does illustrate the difficulty that the “Western World" had (has?) with Buddhist thought and its continued exoticization of this religion.
Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia)
One of the most unique international co-products in film history. Himansi Rai was an Indian solicitor who traveled to Germany in the 1920s a then powerhouse in filmmaking to outfit a production company for a series of movies about world religion. The first was Prem Sanyas or The Light of Asia Prem Sanyas is about the life of Siddhartha Gautama aka The Buddha. The film also features the radiant actress Seeta Devi aka Renee Smith an early silent film star in India.

Recent Blurry release of Legend of the Mountain by Kino Classics

Soo-youn Kang in "Come, Come, Come, Upward"

Poster for Lost Horizon

Seeta Devi aka Renee Smith in Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia)

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