In the light of the recent stand-off between the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), who are battling for their curatorial independence, and the city of Busan, that is demanding greater control by the state; we pay tribute to the work of the BIFF, in particular, the publication of Asian Cinema 100 in October 2015. The book lists 100 important Asian films compiled by international film critics on the occasion of the BIFF’s 20th anniversary. The face-off began in 2014 when BIFF screened the documentary, Diving Bell (The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol by Lee Sang-ho and Anh Hae-ryong) that was critical of the government’s poor handling of the rescue operations of the Sewol ferry tragedy that killed 304 people. The mayor’s office and other politicians objected to the festival’s selection of the film. The freedom of expression requires that a festival be curatorially independent. This is the final of five reviews from the book. You can read about the book at www.biff.kr. By Philip Cheah.
In the light of today’s renewed interest in Buddhism, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho The Bailiff (1954), one of the last six films made before his death, can be viewed through a fresh spiritual, aesthetic prism. After all, the tale of a pair of siblings sold into slavery, a mother taken away to a life as a prostitute, and a father, disgraced as a rebellious governor who cared too much for his people, and dies in exile; is essentially a Buddhist parable of idealism and compassion.
Based on Mori Ogai’s novel that drew from a popular Buddhist folk tale orally transmitted, most likely, by itinerant beggars in medieval times, the novel tempered the cruelty of the original tale. In his version, Mizoguchi’s film adds a political realism to the tale in explaining the disgraced governor’s role of opposing the military government, by not allowing his peasant people to be recruited for the army.
As he explains to his children, Zushio and his younger sister, Anju: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Men are created equal and everyone is entitled to their happiness.” In one fell swoop, Mizoguchi introduces Buddhist compassion and democratic idealism.
Much has been made of Mizoguchi being in the vanguard of the early ’50s trend in Japanese cinema to make historical films. Is it any wonder that the film is situated in the late Heian period (11th-12th Century), the height of Buddhism in Japan but also historically, the rise of the military class?
Yet Mizoguchi is self-conscious of the fairy tale elements of the story when the adult Zushio returns to free the slaves held by Sansho the Bailiff. The character of Sansho gets to play his only pivotal role, when he scoffs: “A slave becoming a governor! That’s a true fairy tale.”
From this point, we are reminded again that the film’s power comes from its Buddhist aesthetics, and NOT its politics. The gentle ripples of the lake caused by Anju’s suicide, the towering trees constantly sheltering the peasant folk and the final scene when Zushio reunites with his mother are all acts of conscious contemplation.
As the renowned film critic, Tadao Sato, wrote: “Mizoguchi found a way to depict love scenes through Buddhism. In art, the discovery of a particular pose or form is the same as discovering its meaning. Precisely because art is a ceaseless discovery of form, discovering the spirit of the form is an act of creation. If the last scene in Sansho the Bailiff is imbued with such meaning for us, for Mizoguchi it must have been a moment of beatitude. And for me, it was a moment of spiritual awakening, a reflection of Mizoguchi’s understanding.” Mizoguchi died in 1956, a fervent Buddhist.