It all started with 1981’s Mandala. Up until Mandala, prolific director Im Kwon-taek had mostly made scores of commercial film, but with Mandala’s exploration of the lives of two Buddhist monks, Im found both his artistic voice and focus, drew much attention to Korean cinema via attention at international film festivals and captured for himself and his actors a number of awards.
One of Im’s obsessions since Mandala has been a focused exploration of Korean culture and the forces that shaped it and continue to shape it today. One of Im’s next major art films following Mandala was 1986’s The Surrogate Woman, a film that not only went on to great fanfare and awards at the Venice International Film Festival, but also began a trend of Im using suffering women as protagonists for his films with his frequent collaborator-to-be Kang Soo-yeon as his muse.
In many ways Come Come Come Upwards represents a point where Im echoes himself a little, by making a second film about two Buddhist ascetics and recruiting his muse, Kang Soo-yeon, to play one of them. Buddhism has a rather long history in Korea, arriving some time during the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history (4th century CE) and waxing and waning since, reaching a peak of adoption during the Goryeo Dynasty as a state religion, before being crushed by the following Neo-Confucians of the Joseon Dynasty.
While Christianity has become the dominant religion in South Korea (the North enforces atheism), due to Buddhism’s extensive history in Korea, its impact remains strong in a cultural and philosophical sense for many Koreans. Given that Buddhism in Korea has had so much time to develop, Korea actually has its own unique schools of Buddhist thought, diverging from the Mahayana school and so Im’s choice to return to a cinematic look at Buddhists ascetics is also a return to an examination of this particular aspect of Korean identity.
Come Come Come Upwards takes a look at contemporary Buddhism by following the stories of two Buddhist nuns: Soon-nyeo (Kang Soo-yeon), a nursing student, arrives at a Buddhist temple seeking to become a sister and is immediately, but politely, interrogated by Sister Jin-sung (Jin Young-mi), the zealous favorite of the head nun (Yoon In-ja), in order to dissuade Soon-nyeo from joining for superficial reasons like family tension or being spurned by a lover. Soon-nyeo persists and is permitted to become a nun-in-training, her education and philosophical approach coming into conflict with Jin-sung’s straightforward religiosity.
We quickly learn that Soon-nyeo has a bit of an issue with lonely men perhaps due to the absence of a father in her life. An encounter with a significant Buddhist monk (Jeon Moo-song) perhaps spurs her interest in the religion, but also highlights an emptiness in her, which peaks with her crush on her high school teacher Hyun-jon (Yoo In-chon), whom she stalked. As Soon-nyeo and Jin-sung’s differing worldviews collide, the head nun issues challenges to both of them, sending Jin-sung on a journey of education and to solve a riddle and Soon-nyeo to confront who she is and what she continues to hold onto that inhibits her spiritual growth out in the world.
One doesn’t have to be Buddhist to understand the story of this film, but its accessibility belies the fact that the narratives fail to resolve and the film’s ending seems to take a rather unexpected and jarring turn. What does work particularly well is Soon-nyeo’s story all the way up until the ending, as we find her constantly defining her emotional self by men (or the absence of men) and driven by a particular take on Buddhism that emphasizes compassion and sacrifice, which conflicts with Jin-sung’s emphasis on denying personal desires and education to seek personal enlightenment.
But while Soon-nyeo’s own journey is rather dynamic, taking her into and out of asceticism and giving us a context for why she might be the way she is, Jin-sung’s story is not very compelling. Part of this is because we never really get to delve into what drives her and so her own later challenge and journey never really has any weight. This ultimately results in an imbalance between the stories and waters down any contrast since we are inevitably going to identify more with Soon-nyeo because there is so much more context for her.
With so much going on in Soon-nyeo’s journey and even a little in Jin-sung’s, the ending of the film is rather disappointing and not because it doesn’t end up with a particular answer for or between them, but because the film takes a bit of an unexpected turn and results in obtrusive introduction of a last-minute theme that is never really well ingrained into the rest of the film. Add that to a lack of any resolution between or within the two nuns differing approaches and you have a film that genuinely seemed to be going somewhere, but simply just gives up making any statement at all, not even a conciliatory or ambiguous one and effectively evaporates much of what we’ve seen before the finale.
Im’s direction on Come Come Come Upwards is fairly straightforward, the oft striking photography balanced by the simplicity of Im’s storytelling approach. Kang Soo-yeon isn’t quite the force here as she was in The Surrogate Woman, but she does manage to handle her character’s inner conflicts well and her switching from Buddhist philosopher to wistful woman and back is entirely believable. As for Jin Young-mi, I’m not sure whether it’s how her part was underwritten or her performance, but I found her Jin-sung to be a bit inaccessible, which further imbalances the dual narratives of the film. At least by this point, Im was working with a rather strong group of collaborators resulting in a strong score for the film, in addition to good production values, given Korea’s limited sophistication in terms of filmmaking technology and education at the time of this film’s making.
Come Come Come Upwards, especially when it keeps its eye on Soon-nyeo, still manages to provide an interesting examination of the journey that many Buddhists and, yes, even non-Buddhists take in resolving the deep-seating struggles of our lives. Despite its religious context and themes, Im manages to keep the focus on people, which makes it rather accessible. But despite how accessible Soon-nyeo’s journey is, the film’s imbalanced narrative led by a seemingly impenetrable Jin-sung as well as the film’s apparent lack of an intended destination leaves it a little disappointing. I didn’t even need the film to arrive to a destination, but merely having the characters end up developing and continuing on their paths towards some end would have helped make the film more conclusive.
Despite the film’s awards and richness in telling Soon-nyeo’s story, this ultimate lack of narrative direction makes Come Come Come Upwards a frequently engaging, but ultimately somewhat disappointing cinematic experience. It still has plenty of merit for those interested in Korean culture or Korean Buddhism in particular as, even with its narrative deficiency, it still manages to present a lot about the religion in a Korean context with strong production and direction. Knowing that the film doesn’t quite finish well could blunt some of the disappointment. 7/10.