Mandala (1981)

Director:  Im Kwon-taek
Cast:  Ahn Sung-kee, Jeon Mu-song, Kim Jong-su
Plot:  A dramatic intertwining of the lives of two Buddhist monks who try to seek meaning for their existence.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  117min
Rating:  M18 for religious themes.

This is such a breathtaking film.  It is also incredibly profound.  I have never seen any like it, nor will anyone ever produce something like this anymore.  It is lamentable that you probably won't get the chance to catch this Im Kwon-taek masterpiece because it is so incredibly rare to find, possibly even rarer than Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day (1991). (Note: Yang's film was finally made available on The Criterion Collection in 2016)

Kudos to the team behind the World Cinema Series programme at the National Museum of Singapore that brought a 35mm print to screen here.  Mandala is one of those few transcendental pictures that will be etched in your mind.  It is also a monumental work in the history of South Korean cinema, and Im's auteurisitc breakthrough. 

Centering on the humorous yet philosophical interactions between two monks with different perspectives, Mandala brings into question the existence of humanity, the purpose of religion, and perhaps a more startling point about having the faith and singular determination to live our lives fiercely and without regrets, in spite of religion.

Im's film works as a series of short flashbacks intercutting the present reality as scenes of past human desires for alcohol, for sex, and for other earthly desires act as a counterpoint to their spiritual quest for enlightenment.  Their journey is torturous, more so psychologically than physically. 

Im is not afraid to push the boundaries of existential thought through the singular, bold lens of Buddhism, a religion rarely receiving treatment for the screen, let alone being introspectively explored in a contemplative and controversial piece like Mandala.

The cinematography is near perfect, with wide shots of the natural landscape, of mountains, of long, dusty roads, of pelting rain and freezing snow.  The urbanization of S. Korea in the early 1980s is also nostalgically captured in a few scenes in a bustling city. 

Mandala is ultimately a meditation, accompanied by traditional Buddhist chants, bells and horns.  Through editing, imagery and dialogue, all integrated in a whole, encompassing way, Mandala elevates itself from being a masterful look at secularism and asceticism into the realm of what it means to be at one with the Self.

Verdict:  Exquisitely shot and not without its dense subject matter, Im's transcendent film is a masterful look at secularism and asceticism from a bold, singular lens of Buddhism.


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