Mandala (1981)

The Korean Film Festival continued into its second season of Korean Film Night cinema with ‘Rebels With A Cause’ perspective. The season ran between July and August at the Korean Cultural Centre and focused on individuals (students, everyday workers, teachers, monks and soldiers) who have rebelled against the norms of society.

Over the course of six weeks, six films were screened, I had the opportunity to attend Im Kwon-Taeki’s Mandala (1981).

Mandala is an interesting film, it is based on Seong-dong’s book of the same name.
The film follows two very different characters who embark on a journey of self-discovery across Korea. Pob-un a young Buddhist monk who has quit his university studies and left his girlfriend to search answers of human existence and Ji-San a elder monk who indulges in all the pleasures available on Earth, especially alcohol.

They both meet by on a bus when Pob-un saves Ji-San by vouching for him to the police but they decide to go their separate ways until they meet again by chance and decide to continue their journey together. This scene is quite interesting and powerful especially when the camera pans back to show the beautiful rural countryside and the two heading off in the same direction. It makes the viewer question if the two will continue with their friendship and for how long.

There are many subject matters within the film including understanding one’s own existence, religion and of course individualism – subjects which have pretty much been of staunch debate since the dawn of society and perhaps more important now than ever before.

The film balances its subject matter well – at the heart is a serious matter – but there are elements of comedy, particularly from Ji-San and the scene featuring the unveiling of the Buddha statue in front of the female crowd.
The cinematography is amazing, more evident in the scene of the two monks sitting and eating while a young woman walks down the steps to knock on the door, and there is of course the finger-burning scene which is memorable for its own reasons. The music is interwoven with chanting all of which adds depth and atmosphere.

The film runs at 112 minutes which, but I’m afraid to say does drag at times and perhaps pacing could be an overall, albeit small criticism. I can understand the desire to build character but it is slightly laboured.

Buddhists might pick up that the film is loosely based on Wonhyo, but, as someone who is not a Buddhist I felt I did not need to know this to understand what it was trying to say – which is a good sign of good filmmaking. I would definitely see it again, perhaps in a few years time to decide whose outlook on life I preferred, Ji-San and his desire to indulge in all pleasures or Pob-un whose search for meaning and existence will only end when he does, a conundrum we perhaps all face in life.

Rating 3.5/5


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