At first glance, "A Little Monk (Dong sung)" could be seen as a variation on the immensely popular "The Way Home (Jibeuro)" with its rural setting and cute pint-sized protagonist. However, judging by the film's trailer, "A Little Monk" seems to be marketed as a comedy in the style of "Wet Dreams (Mongjeonggi)" or "Sex is Zero (Saekjeuk shigong)" with its particular focus on a couple scenes of implied raunchiness. However, after viewing the film, a third and unexpected interpretation comes to light-- "A Little Monk" could be considered a modern retelling of Samuel Beckett's 'Theatre of the Absurd' masterpiece "Waiting for Godot".
The story revolves around a nine-year old monk named Do-nyeom (Kim Tae-jin) who has lived most of his lonely life in a quiet mountain monastery headed by an aged Temple Master (Oh Young-soo). Though the Master has put Do-nyeom on a strict regimen of Buddhist teachings, meditation, and chores, the child's mind cannot help but wander to thoughts of his mother, whom he cannot remember but misses dearly and hopes to be reunited with one day. He also wishes that he could be like the other children who live in a nearby village, joining in with their games and attending their school. Other than the Master, Do-nyeom's only other companion is an older monk named Jung-sim (Kim Min-kyo), who is also straying from the path of enlightenment as a result of his constant carnal thoughts. The little monk also has occasional contact with the temple's groundskeeper (Jeong Mu-song), who keeps Do-nyeom's hopes up by reassuring him that his mother will indeed come back someday. But when several seasons go by without his mother's return, Do-nyeom pegs his hopes on being adopted by the monastery's benefactor, a wealthy widow (Kim Ye-ryeong of "Bus Stop") who drops by the temple every year to mourn her dead son.
It may be easy to dismiss "A Little Monk" as mere melodrama with Buddhist overtones, as writer/director Joo Kyung-jung injects sentimentality and pathos into the proceedings at every turn. Indeed, "Variety" magazine dismisses the film as such in its brief two-paragraph review. Unlike what is hinted at in the seemingly cheerful trailer, "A Little Monk" is actually a melancholy film, and it is not difficult to be moved by the heartbreak and anguish experienced by Do-nyeom, who winds up being abandoned by everyone and everything he believes in. And while the tug of war between faith and flesh figures heavily in the interactions between the Master and his understudies, the most fascinating aspect of "A Little Monk" is how it can be seen as a recontextualization of the literary classic "Waiting for Godot".
A contemporary of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, Nobel Prize-winning Samuel Beckett became the first playwright to find international fame in the 'Theatre of the Absurd', an art form that eschewed traditional concepts of storytelling, drama, logical language, recognizable settings, and themes. His most famous work was "Waiting for Godot", which was described as 'a strange little play where nothing happens'. This description was not too far from the truth, as it was a pessimistic and cynical rumination on the agony of existence. The play revolved around two homeless men, Vladimir and Estragon, who are awaiting the arrival of Godot, a person who will presumably save them. Unfortunately, by the end of the second act, which essentially is a repeat of the first act with a few differences, Godot still has not arrived, and the two men have little choice but to continue waiting. Not surprisingly, the play has been interpreted as allegorical commentary on religion (most notably as an attack on the Catholic Church) and politics.
There are a number of interesting parallels between "A Little Monk" and "Waiting for Godot". Like Vladimir and Estragon, the two young monks are both waiting for salvation. For Do-nyeom, he waits year-after-year for his mother to return and take him away, while Jung-sim hopes to exorcise his sexual urges once and for all. Unfortunately, like the characters in the Beckett play, salvation never comes to them. Even more troubling is that they are both paralyzed by its prospect. But unlike Vladimir and Estragon, Do-nyeom and Jung-sim eventually realize that they must take matters into their own hands to effect change, as witnessed by the film's poignant closing scene. Indeed, part of the appeal of "A Little Monk" is the universality of Do-nyeom's condition, which will certainly be appreciated by anyone who has waited in vain for a new job, love, or anything else of importance.
Another aspect of "Waiting for Godot" was the constant struggle of the characters to pass the time. In the play, Vladimir and Estragon spend an inordinate amount of effort devising little games to keep their boredom from waiting at bay, such as asking each other questions, debating whether or not they should part separate ways, or insulting each other, which is not unlike the repetitive monotony endured by the two monks at the monastery.
Furthermore, the interactions between the Master and his two charges mirror those between two characters in "Waiting for Godot", Pozzo and his slave Lucky. In the first act of "Waiting for Godot", Lucky is kept in line by Pozzo's whip and he is also not allowed to speak his mind (he is quickly silenced when he does). This is not too dissimilar to the Master's demand for unquestioning obedience from his understudies and his penchant for corporal punishment. In the second act of "Waiting for Godot", both Pozzo and Lucky undergo a transformation, with the former becoming blind and the latter losing the ability to speak. Similarly, in the latter part of "A Little Monk", the Master has become completely oblivious to the needs and wants of Do-nyeom and Jung-sim, who in turn choose to abandon the monastery and their Master.
Finally, one of the struggles in "Waiting for Godot" was the validation of one's existence. All the characters, particularly Vladimir and Estragon, were plagued with very short memories such that they would forget what they had said only moments before, or fail to recognize one another after a period of time. Thus, Vladimir and Estragon were unable to take anything to completion as they were constantly preoccupied with the 'here and now'. Furthermore, they would easily mistake other characters for Godot, only to have their hopes dashed when the truth was revealed. Similarly, Do-nyeom cannot remember his mother and has no understanding about his past, which not only relegates him to waiting for his mother for years on end, but also leads to a devastating revelation in the film's final act that all but destroys his chances of salvation.
Philosophical ponderings aside, first-time helmer Joo has done a masterful job with "A Little Monk", despite the numerous financial setbacks the plagued the production. Child actor Kim visibly grows older throughout the film as a result of the extended production schedule, yet remains genuinely affecting as he conveys both the childlike naïveté and heartbreaking sorrow of Do-nyeom without missing a beat, making him a face to watch in the coming years. Oh, who is a veteran of the theater, is perfectly cast as the stern Master, a man who has been blinded by a strict adherence to the precepts of his faith. Finally, Kim acquits himself nicely as Do-nyeom's conflicted fellow monk, offering some much needed comic relief in some key scenes.
Strip away the charming child lead, the cutesy direction, and the quaint rural setting from "A Little Monk" and what you have is a film that offers the entire spectrum of human experience in a simple story about a boy waiting for something that may never arrive. And whether viewers subscribe to it as a treatise on the 'suffering of being' in the tradition of "Waiting for Godot", or simply see it as a tale of finding hope in a hopeless situation, "A Little Monk" is an undeniably powerful film, making it one of the top Korean cinema offerings of 2003.
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