The Nature of Sin: Im Kwon-taek's Mandala

A name perhaps familiar within the South Korean film community, but much less so in the West, I was immediately intrigued by the filmography of Im Kwon-taek. Regarded as one of the veteran directors of later Korean cinema, Im Kwon-taek established himself within the industry creating films within the studio system in the 1960s and 70s before breaking into more personal, independent work later in his life. (He has directed a stunning 102 films in total!) I had a chance to see his work for the first time with his  story of traveling monks, Mandala (1981). The unique cinematic voice and tone of the story was a very bold introduction to his films, for it uses the wandering camera and characters in a way I have seldom seen in other East Asian arthouse films from the 1980s. 

Based on Kim Song-dong's book of the same name, the film itself navigates the appearance of 'sin' within the lives of two Buddhist monks who become acquainted during their travels. Kwon-taek uses the main character Pob-un, played by Ahn Sung-see, and his renegade monk companion Ji-san, played by Jun Moo-sang, to explore questions surrounding breaches in the moral value systems that may present themselves in a monks life and the contradictory nature of human life. It is a meditative story of two men that undergo personal tragedy and face the fears of existence. 

Kwon-taek and cinematographer Jeong Il-seong makes great use of the 2.35:1 cinemascope format, whether it be by enhancing the large sprawling landscapes surrounding the monks' voyage or positioning the characters into tense, sometimes claustrophobic, frames. In using the natural landscapes' imposing presence alongside the negative spaces of monasteries and building interiors, the film succeeds in pitting the tortured mindset of Pob-un against the world in an effective manner. With such strong understanding of visual language, their shared cinematic efforts have translated the novel into a spectacle of moral and religious struggle.

I also can't help but admire the writing of this film: the strong performances and cinematography only serve to support what I understood as a fascinating script deeply involved with questioning the beliefs of its characters, as well as the main tenets of Buddhism in an evolving Korea. The didactic dialogue  used throughout the course of the story occupies itself with strife without relaying overly melodramatic tinged religious commentary. The progression towards Po-bun's self-acceptance and acknowledging the world's faults is very well paced, simply because of the believable conversations that occur within the story: it is first and foremost a character-centric story, and the script never forgets that fact. 

I highly recommend this film for those that are interested in another glimpse of the wide variety of storytelling Korean cinema has to offer. The world that Im Kwon-taek has created within this film is sad, pensive, hopeful, and incredibly beautiful. One last disclaimer: Kwon-taek's work can be quite difficult to find in the West, as much of his work is either out of print or simply non-existent in newer physical formats. You might have luck with your local used DVD store? (If those still exist at this point...) For those looking for a streamable option, Mandala is available to watch in full on Youtube at the moment.

Mandala is available on DVD from the Korean Film Archive Collection.

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By: Christophe Charre

Hi hello hey I run this blog. I write about movies... films... moving art... flicks? If you enjoyed what you read, feel free to continue perusing the blog.