In a world defined by suffering, does one have the right to retreat into the self and engage in a personal quest for enlightenment or is true enlightenment to be found in the confluence of human consciousness? Im Kwon-taek has some profound questions to ask about human spirituality, the futility of existence, and the transcendence of the self in his 1981 masterpiece, Mandala (曼陀羅 / 만다라). Two monks with very different ideas of spiritual fulfilment meet, part, argue, and perhaps finally understand each other as they walk solitary, individual paths towards Nirvana, each also doubting the purpose of their quest and its ultimate resolution.
Beob-wun (Ahn Sung-ki) dropped out of university and broke-up with his girlfriend in order to become a monk. Consumed with nihilistic thoughts about the futility of existence, he could not go on living a meaningless life. Six years later, Beob-wun is on a bus which is stopped at a checkpoint. Another man in monk’s robes fails to furnish an official monk’s ID card to the authorities and is unceremoniously ejected. Beob-wun gets off the bus too out of a sense of professional courtesy and a desire to help, but Jisan (Jeon Moo-song) is not exactly the kind of monk a serious minded man like Beob-wun would usually want to associate with. Nevertheless, he is oddly fascinated by him, conflicted yet drawn.
Jisan has a sad history of his own. After an indiscretion with a girl at a mountain temple, he was falsely accused of rape and subsequently defrocked. Nevertheless, he continues to practice as a wandering monk, seeking enlightenment in his own way and at his own pace. Jisan’s Buddhas are buried at the bottom of bottles of soju and in the hearts of women – most especially that of the girl from the temple, Ok-sun (Bang Hee), to whom he often returns and is unable to forget. Beob-wun retreats when tested, he doesn’t look at the things which tempt him. Jisan runs headlong towards his demons and defeats them by satiation, but the relief is only temporary – the old emptiness soon returns and the cycle of spiritual deaths and rebirths begins itself again.
When Beob-wun’s former girlfriend, Young-ju, tracks him town to a mountain retreat and confronts him over his “selfish” decision to run away from all his problems by hiding in a temple, he tells her that temples aren’t places for the defeated but to lead one’s life and save the lives of others. She quite fairly asks why he can’t save her life by returning to the world, but Beob-wun looks away. Beob-wun is in denial. He can’t forget Young-ju and has come to resent her as an obstacle to his path towards enlightenment, blaming her for existing rather than himself for his failure to “overcome” her.
There is something dark and dangerous in Beob-wun’s wilful negation of his desires which later manifests as violence, first in a memory or perhaps a fantasy of rape, and then more directly against a woman who was attempting to tempt him into breaking his self affirmed vows of chastity. Jisan’s philosophy is melancholy and perhaps hopeless in its own way, but brighter and free from artifice or malice. Having separated from Jisan, Beob-wun reunites with a fellow monk who has taken their mentor’s instructions to “burn away” the fetters of the mind literally by setting fire to his fingers in order to transcend himself through conquering physical pain. His friend tells him of a funny monk he met on an island who was the only one to rush in and help when the islanders were struck down by a mysterious plague. Jisan fulfilled his duty to others. The other monk sat in the woods on his own praying for his personal enlightenment while the islanders continued to suffer alone.
Jisan, and later Beob-wun’s friend Sugwan, have chosen to look for themselves as reflected in the souls of others, but Beob-wun remains trapped within his own solipsistic belief that he can only overcome his suffering and find an answer to his existential crisis through entirely negating the outside world. Beob-wun is the kind that keeps his head down and avoids getting involved with other people’s troubles – the reminders of an authoritarian regime are everywhere, but a part of him knows that Jisan, for all his faults, is the most “enlightened” man he’s ever known, if only for being the least like himself. The quest for “enlightenment” might be an intensely selfish act of self harm, but the need to create meaning from meaningless persists, for good or ill, and Beob-wun remains lost on the never-ending road to Nirvana, a solitary traveller without hope or expectation.
Mandala was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels With a Cause screening series. It is also available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Im Kwon-taek box set, as well as online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.