Buddhist misery, as well as misogyny“Come, Come, Come Upwards,” taking its name from a Buddhist chant, is not a pleasant film. The heroine, Soon-nyeo (Kang Soo-yeon), gets slapped around, disowned, expelled, raped, expelled again, widowed (three times), and finally ostracized by the only people she ever really knew.
The director Im Kwon-taek and the writer Han Sung-won have crafted a bleak world of human suffering, in which Soon-nyeo is the only good person. Continually giving of herself as a nun, husband, nurse and mother, she seems never to receive anything in return but degradation or, at best, exasperation.
Expelled from school for innocently accompanying her teacher on a pilgrimage to his dead wife’s old hangouts, Soon-nyeo follows the example of her troubled father, who abandoned her, and takes up Buddhist asceticism. At the temple, Soon-nyeo violates her vow by rescuing a man from suicide, and when the man starts stalking her, the temple elders decide to expel the young woman. Not soon after, the man rapes her.
If this is Buddhist mercy, one hesitates to imagine what Buddhist wrath must involve; perhaps gangrenous flesh wounds and loosed starving hyenas.
The film’s long biography is told through abrupt shifts forward and, in the early scenes, backward in time. Im cuts directly from the rape to a happy domestic scene between the man and Soon-nyeo, who is married and now pregnant with his child. Then it’s straight to six months later, with both husband and child dead. The contrasts are frequent, shocking and dark.
The other nuns at the temple, with one exception, are all misguided women who hide from their problems by meditating instead of confronting them. Only the head nun, Eun-seon, recognizes Soon-nyeo’s potential for acheiving salvation through loss and suffering, and when she dies, Soon-nyeo has nothing left.
This is a reversal from Soon-nyeo’s arrival, when Sister Eun-seon’s favorite seemed to be the young Jin-seong (Jin Yong-mi). But Jin-seong squanders her journey in meditation, living in a cave with a self-castrated monk, ignoring the pleas of a student activist to involve herself in the sufferings of the world. Despite her trials and punishments, in the end it is Soon-nyeo’s messy, tangled journey that is revealed as the true path.
This is a hard film to watch today. The concept of enlightenment through self-inflicted suffering is one that some viewers will likely find distasteful and old-fashioned. The universal misogynism of every single male character, save the high school teacher, is way over the top and (thankfully) will seem anachronistic today.
But the film joins “The Waiting Years,” “The Awakening” and many other literary examples of women brutalized by the world and ultimately abandoned. Its ending, which juxtaposes Soon-nyeo and Jin-seong, both tragic figures in different ways, is unlikely to satisfy those hoping for divine justice. Instead, it confronts its audience with a spiritual and moral challenge, asking this: What, and where, is mercy?
Come, Come, Come Upwards (Aje, Aje, Bara Aje)
Directed by Im Kwon-taek
Starring Kang Soo-yeon, Jin Yong-mi
Running time: 134 minutes
by Ben Applegate