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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Becoming Who I Was"

2017/11/18 | Permalink

Most of you have probably at least heard stories about reincarnated Buddhist monks, and how their past lives can be identified quite early in childhood. What's never really discussed, though, is what being a child reincarnation of of a major spiritual leader is actually like. In "Becoming Who I Was", we see in documentary form the daily life of one such child in a small village in Northern India. Directly, we see the contradiction of this child being incredibly wise and yet obviously...still just a child.

The sheer random happenstance of "Becoming Who I Was" is its most beguiling quality. Far from being any kind of official puff piece for Tibetan Buddhism as an institution, the little monk struggles with (mostly undiscussed) political issues that prevent him from receiving official sanction. The entire latter part of the documentary is just a road trip as the child and his mentor attempt to make their way to Tibet whatever way they can, placidly enduring the discomfort of the journey.

That the young boy can tolerate these incidents largely without complaint is as good an argument as any that he really must be who his mentor believes him to be. The closest the boy ever even gets to even being mildly annoyed is when he asks for a piece of candy at a small shop where they're already buying mittens. There's this very odd sense of equality between the boy and his mentor. As the adult, the mentor has to make all the decisions, but spiritually, the boy is his superior.

Back home the way the boy interacts to other children in his village is similarly at a cross-purposes. Now the scene that comes to mind involves their playing a crude version of cricket with whatever implements are available. The boy expresses disappointment that he is smaller than the other boys, and cannot play very well. Yet in a tone of casual enlightenment opines that he is happy to be able to play at all.

The same detached sense and sensibility is also present in scenes where the boy administers...some sort of rite to faithful Buddhist laymen or, in one memorable instance, a procession of other child monks. Not specially reincarnated ones, like the boy, just normal ones. The variance in scenes like this helps suggest why a former Buddhist master would choose to reincarnate in such an obscure location. As out of place as the boy's sheer civility may seem, his presence is a constant odd comfort to those he meets.

That was my fundamental takeaway from "Becoming Who I Was" as well. This is not a documentary that offers much in the way of hard information. It's all about the subtler aspects of life, that we don't necessarily think of as facts. How does the boy reincarnation of a famed monk serve tea? The answer is not terribly interesting or even surprising, yet there's just something so ineffable about watching that process play out in front of my eyes, it just feels meaningful somehow.

Review by William Schwartz

"Becoming Who I Was" is directed by Jeon Jin and Moon Chang-yong.

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