A Bodhisattva on Ngong Ping
Meeting with Bodhisattva (Taiwan, 2016)
- Kuo Shiao Yun, director and co-editor
Ever since I was a child, I've been fascinated by drums and drummers. And while early on in my life, I only knew of Western drummers like Ringo Starr and Karen Carpenter, the drummers whose music has really made my heart pound with excitement in recent times have been East Asian percussion ensembles such as Japan's Kodo group of taiko drummers and Taiwan's dramatic U-Theatre.
In addition to having been privileged to witness live performances by these drum troupes here in Hong Kong, I've also seen U-Theatre prominently feature in a 2007 drama directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Kenneth Bi's The Drummer. Playing a fictional troupe which nonetheless are closely modelled on their real selves, its members awed me with their zen style of drumming but also the spartan lifestyles and disciplined routines adhered to at their Taiwan mountain base.
If truth be told, I'd have been satisfied if Kuo Shiao Yun's documentary about this artistic troupe -- which screened at this year's Chinese Documentary Festival -- had pretty much just concentrated on bringing U-Theatre's musical performances to the silver screen. But Meeting with Bodhisattva -- which takes its title from the troupe's work "inspired by humanistic and Buddhist wisdom on the aspiration of strength and bravery in life" -- actually spends more time on the social work enacted by, and spiritual dimensions of, U-Theatre than the troupe's music-making efforts per se.
In particular, the film looks at U-Theatre's interaction with recently released inmates at Taiwan's Changhua Prison who had participated in its dharma drum training and subsequently were invited to embark on a close to 400 kilometer walk from the southern city of Pingtung to the Taiwanese capital of Taipei along with U-Theatre troupe members and a group of young students from the countryside who also had trained with U-Theatre.
Early on in Meeting with Bodhisattva, one is given the sense that U-Theatre's founder and artistic director, Liu Ruo Yu, had this idea that walking can get one in a meditative state of mind and help people to focus on following the path towards righteousness. As we proceed further along into the film, however, not only does this particular viewpoint end up being challenged by such as the errant behaviour of some of the walk participants but the documentary itself seems to lose its way.
By film's end, it feels like the idealists of U-Theatre have been brought down to earth. And although I don't think this is what the people behind this documentary actually had sought to do, it felt like they effectively revealed the subjects of their film to be less, well, magical and extraordinary than they previously had seemed.
On one level, there's nothing wrong with that. But I can't help that Meeting with Bodhisattva consequently ended up disappointing its core audience: those of us who have been thrilled in the past by the music of U-Theatre but also been impressed by -- even if not totally subscribing to -- their philosophical ideals and spiritual beliefs.
My rating for the film: 6.5