Samsara posits that nothing is perfect in this world – a point that it unintentionally proves itself. Although Heyjin’s road – from head priest to troubled boy and back again – is told with beauty, depth, and aching poignancy, that of his companions is essentially non-existent. Caricatures, rather than characters, they seem incapable of growth or learning, despite their leader’s suffering. “Why are you here?” Heyjin’s master asks him several times.
In a dark room seemingly illuminated only by the face of Buddha, the priest Hyejin bows three times. His act of devotion completed, he walks into the light and through a temple garden framed by the condominium towers of Seoul. Soon, we meet three other monks – a well educated and photogenic social media celebrity, a talkative huckster, and a dishonest womanizer. Together, the four monks will journey to a remote mountain hermitage and a fateful encounter with Heyjin’s old master – an ancient monk whom many revere like a saint. Although the four men will remain in each other’s company, it is Heyjin who has the longest and most difficult path. Not only must he journey up the mountain but also back into his own past and down into the depths of his often fraught relationship with the now ailing master who raised him.
If only the filmmaker had asked this question of his characters. Only one of them can provide resounding answer, though it is an answer well worth seeing.
Callan Tay is a writer and film aficionado. Ricepaper Magazine is a media sponsor of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). As part of its series of reviews of films at this year’s festival, Ricepaper will be showcasing reviews of specific films featuring Asian filmmakers. Samsara is a featured as part of VIFF’s Gateway themed series.