Vague talk of art nine times out of ten will miss the whole point. Critics will enumerate a few themes, but that is repeating words, knowing one word instead of ten things. The main thing is that here we have a filmmaker who knows what it all is out there, or better said: knows how to sculpt currents of life with a clarity that is neither misty-eyed nor cynical, that is both unwavering gaze of the present and mental awareness of broader cycles. Let's see what is all that.
The film is split in two halves, both centered around a hospital with recurring characters coming and going. The first half is an idyllic countryside reverie with lush tropical foliage looming outside the hospital windows; it is a love song wafting through the quiet summer night, the sound of crickets carried by the breeze, stories of climbing mango trees and reincarnation, sunlight over green pastures. Inside this part there is another story of denied love but look how gentle the emotional handling; it ends with laughter, with no one needlessly wounded or wallowing in misery, with no judgement and no one's soul exposed except a tiny corner tenderly to us.
So the first part is unspooling some lovely mood, simple so you may not think much of the film at this point.
Except we have a second part, again in a hospital, repeats the opening shot of the film but now the pov has been reversed—with us 'looking back' at what was being looked at in the first scene. There are several shifts in this second part. Some obvious ones, in time and mood, the hospital now is modern, the mood is sterile, the jungle out the window is now the concrete boom of the big city. A little less obviously: we now miss the rustic gift of wrapped crispy pork, the small talk of musical dreams with the dentist, no one tells stories about mango trees or reincarnation anymore. There is no love song. Traffic instead of crickets.
To emphasize this bizarre new landscape of life, there is a sequence starting with when we see a legless man crouching on the floor, a bizarre sight intentionally shot this way to jar. People are being fitted with artificial limbs in the basement, and the imagery though now it makes sense is still depressing by contrast to earlier. Now there's carbon monoxide poisoning.
However, other things have not changed. The stone statue of the sitting Buddha is in the same place. The old Buddhist monk still has funny dreams with chicken, still swaps medical advice for herbs that supposedly sooth confused mind. You may appreciate that his memory is better now.
The best part is at the level of perception of things. Until the second segment with the drastic shift ahead, we don't know all that tropical bliss and boredom is going to be in the past. Suddenly we have memories of a past life, colored as more pure because we recall it as more pure. It is a bit of a mystery just how this has happened, in physical terms, how the two worlds fit together, which is for the better; this is not to be reasoned with, the insight is of emotional intellect.
By this I mean a specific thing, a shift in watching. Now the first part seems more pure, the modern second part more depressing which makes the contrast a little mawkish and the film slightly contrived. But that is in large part in the eye.
If you look closer, in the present segment people are no more sullen or hurried, as we'd think normal to show in modern life, than at first. The surrounding world has changed of course, and that does affect the experience of living. Whereas there used to be clean riverwater to bathe one's broken parts in, now the old woman has to conjure the cleansing illusion of healing water. Isn't cinema nothing but a cleansing illusion? It can only have as much effect, as much depth as you let it.
This scene is key. Faced with the old crone, the boy does what? Walks away suspicious of the healing effect. Next to traffic and carbon monoxide poisoning, now there is cynicism. So if you, similarly, turn your back on the healing promise of the film and walk away with just an artful assertion of the effects of modernization, you miss the whole reason behind this.
It all ends with two unforgettable shots of this cinematic healing illusion in actual effect; everything sucked into the roaring void but that is not the end, the parting shot of public gymnastics in a park shows a renewal and zest for it all to start again, an absolutely marvelous moment.
So we've had some expansion of our awareness in the first part because of the freeflow and not knowing where it goes, colored by memory in the second part and contraction as the mind points out logical contrasts between past and present, setting limits to vision because suddenly we define the present by what it's not, the 'purer' past.
Now emptying ourselves of all that in the first of the two shots (samadhi), this last shot rings loud and clear, restoring the world to broader dimensions. It is one of the most transcendent moments in film, equal to the dance scene of another Asian film, Sharasojyu.
In both cases it is not the shot itself, it is the placement, opening our eyes to it after all we've seen. There are no words, no conventional wisdom for the mind to latch onto except breathing in the air of that one exuberant moment of people.
This is what the Buddhist know and cultivate in meditation as prajna or intuitive wisdom, understanding the one root beneath the myriad branches of illusion.
Something to meditate upon.
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