Chungmuro/Film Reviews
Movie Review: Come Come Come Upwards
by | May 26, 2013 | 29 Comments

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.

29 Comments from the Beanut Gallery
  1. Ivoire

    Thank you for the review!

  2. appreciate

    Thank you…

  3. Dramafed1782

    Thank you for the review!

  4. snow_white

    Thanks for the review…..

    Never heard of it…..what is the year of its release??

    • 4.1 refresh_daemon

      It was released in 1989.

  5. alua

    Ah, I had a vague hope it would be on the Korean Film Archive Youtube channel, but apparently not (not yet in any case). They did show it at the Im Kwon-taek retrospective in London last October, although I didn’t catch any of those films (they programmed the retrospective right after the London Film Festival, so of course everyone was suffering from film fatigue by that point!).

    There is a trailer for Come Come Come Upwards, in case anyone’s interested:

    And four of Im Kwon-taek’s films are on KOFIC’s YouTube channel (though none of the ones you mention):

    “While Christianity has become the dominant religion in South Korea” – seriously? I have to admit I’m really surprised here…

    • 5.1 ♪♪ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♪♪

      I believe only the “popular” ones are uploaded in the youtube

      • 5.1.1 alua

        Ahh, I really don’t think so… I doubt the Korean Film Archive opts for the “popular” ones, their whole mission with their YouTube channel is to make classic Korean films available to a wider, international public.

        It’s probably got more to do with licensing issues and film quality (physical/digital). I’m presuming they’ve are working with physical film to start with – which they may have to restore if it’s in poor quality – and are then digitising them one by one.

        I think they launched the YouTube channel about a year ago, so it’s a work in progress and I’d eventually expect the film to show up there.

        • ♪♪ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♪♪

          aha, that make sense…

    • 5.2 refresh_daemon

      If you stick the Protestants and Catholics together, they outnumber the Buddhists and Christianity (across denominations) is probably the most actively growing of the religions in the Republic of Korea at the moment.

      • 5.2.1 BadBob

        Checked a couple of online sources and Christianity does outnumber Buddhism at present in South Korea. The irreligious/unaffiliated is still the largest group. Political Christianity has been a pox on my homeland (U.S.) and I hope that it doesn’t further infect Korean society.

        • KimYoonmi

          Christianity became popular in Korea since it coincided with several things, which included a feminist movement, and also the wave of adoption.

          Initially, as a movement, Christianity helped women find freedom from their houses, etc.

          On the other hand, it has hurt Korea (as a nation) in terms of creating adoption through Harry Holt–since children are the biggest treasures a nation can produce. (Though I’m not making this a simple open-shut case case on adoption–I’m just pointing out what International adoption did to KOREA rather than the individuals).

          And in some cases Harry Holt through his belief that all Christians must be good people, hurt more people than he helped. (His only screening was that they were Christian with a mother and father. Also set it up as a rescue mission. <– blech.) So sometimes children went to abusive homes. This also led to a tradition of international adoption being done in the name of Christianity.

          Part of the conversion, was not only the push for industrialization, the hurt nation trying to recover from an occupation and a long war with a corrupt government… but also Adopted people trying to return to Korea, who were Christian. Coincide that with the feminist movement and it makes sense.

          So I see it as a 50/50.

      • 5.2.2 Jessica

        I’m curious, do they still practice their traditional folk beliefs as well?

        I know quite a few Chinese Christians that will still pray to their ancestors. So I’m curious if it’s similar in Korea.

        • Jo

          Some people perform traditional duties but for most Korean Christians they either simply do it out of tradition or completely refrain from doing so.
          I also hope America’s brand of Christianity does not infect Korean culture…but it kind of is these days 🙁 There is a lot of white privilege in Western Christianity and a lot of asian christians are starting to believe in it and…well, I don’t feel like writing an essay. But …yes.

        • KimYoonmi

          Muism… is mostly shunned, but often integrated into daily life (not like Japan’s Shintoism, but more the base philosophies of Muism often show up in Korean culture. Much like Neo Confucianism, while not actively practiced will show up in Korean culture.)

          There is some synchronization between Buddhism and the other religions of Korea. The lines blur a bit… Buddhism has taken on some Muism and Confucianism in Korea. (I witnessed this first hand.) and Christianity has taken some Buddhism… and Muism has also taken on Buddhism. (Mostly in the form of the afterlife, also some ancestor worship, which wasn’t originally part of the religion from what I understand).

          Wuism (Chinese Shamanism)… I need more texts on that… but I’m not sure it’s comparable…

      • 5.2.3 Kiara

        Aren’t Protestants and Catholics Christians?. I’m confuse.

        • Jo

          some people like to have distinctions.

        • refresh_daemon

          Sometimes demographers will separate the two (as well as Eastern Orthodox traditions), but they all fall under the umbrella of Christianity. I had to specify because a lot of my numbers suggesting that Christianity is the most prevalent religion in Korea is a result of adding those two numbers together.

          • Kiara

            I see, thank you both.

          • Manin

            It is the same with christianity as with islam: you seperate them into groups based on different traditions and the structures of it, Islam has Sunni and Shia, Christendom has Protestantism and Catholics as the major seperations (with further fragmentation).

            Although in the basic belief, one God and Jesus Christ, the two forms of Christianity is similar, the practice and church hierarchy is different (i.e. catholisims has the pope and saints, protestantism doesn’t). And there is a long history of conflict between the two forms going back all the way to the 1200s. Still today some Catholics view Protestants as being “heretical” and the same the other way. Just like the two major parts of Islam has it’s conflicts playing out today.

            So there is a lot more than just demographics going into the mix.

    • 5.3 Sabah

      Thank you for the links.

      • 5.3.1 alua


        Anything to spread the word and raise the profile of Korean cinema!

    • 5.4 Rovi

      Yes, Christianity. I’m not surprised, besides others being Buddhist, Animist/Shamanist, & Atheist.

      Mainly, besides Roman Catholicism (though only a little percentage of believers), majority of South Koreans are either Protestants or members of various Christian groups.

  6. Sabah

    Thank you for an excellent review and I intend to check out Mandala too. Thank you also for the interesting notes on the director. There’s a school of thought within the art world that when we critique or try to understand a piece of art, we are in fact just trying to understand the artist. Whether you accept this or not, I think it is interesting to note changes within a directing if you are familiar with a director, since those differences tend to illuminate and accentuate other nuances within a piece of work. So, once again thank you for highlighting these points because it has definitely intrigued me and I do intend to look up these films and the director.

    ” 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.” Ah, what to do with the no-end ending? Reading your review, it does look as though we have two very different paths, characters, POV presented to us that if we had the inclination we could create endings for them that our own hearts would wish for them. However as you so rightly say, “simply just gives up making any statement at all” and that is what would crucially be missing. Unlike life, fiction tend to make us feel that all lives have some meaning, some message hidden within them, so that when fiction tends to be as cryptic as real life, we are surprisingly shocked. Hehe. I guess the best I might take from it is a representation of two lives, juxtaposed like… well I was going to use the mountain and valley from the Yin and Yang analogy but that’s a whole different tradition…err…just complimenting contrasts I guess.

    Once again, thank you because this probably would have remained way off my radar.

  7. kumi

    How can compassion and sacrifice conflict denial of personal desires??? If personal desires are materialistic, then, yes, they are to be abandoned for the sake of spiritual enlightenment. But if not … Desire is an inherent symptom of the soul.

    Thank you very much for your review and recommendation. We’ll probably watch it together with BuddhaCat.

    • 7.1 refresh_daemon

      For Soonnyeo, I think that the film recognizes that immaterial personal desire, even in the form of compassion, can still be a terrible stumbling block for spiritual enlightenment. It is not compassion in itself that is the problem for her, but rather the underlying motivation for that compassion and sometimes even her motivation for spiritual enlightenment might be misaligned. There is a wisdom around compassion and education that I think that neither Soonnyeo or Jinsung sees and that is why the head nun sends then out on their respective quests.

  8. Rovi

    …I KNEW IT~!!!

    As soon as I saw the picture, there’s no doubt it’s Kang Soo-yeon when she was much younger. But her expression is still the same, even in “Women in the World”; who else can pull off that scheming look even as Jeong Nan-jeong.

    And also, I remember this one as the movie of her onscreen shaving.

    Will be back on this…I hope someone also recaps her much older film “Surrogate Mother”. 🙂

    • 8.1 Rovi

      Oops, I thought “Surrogate Mother” was older. XP scratch that. XP

  9. AK

    Really great review! Thanks!

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