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Review: ‘Zen’

Zen and the Art of the Religious Biopic

Above: Kantarô Nakamura as the monk Dogen in "Zen."

“Zen” (opened October 1 at Reading’s Gaslamp Theaters) is a narrative film about an aspect of Buddhism that many people have heard about and yet most may not fully understand.

Whether it's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" or "The Idiot's Guide to Zen," almost everyone's been exposed to the notion of Zen be it through religion, meditation, or pop culture. But that kind of vague familiarity can also be dangerous because people tend to think they know more than they do. So along comes a movie called “Zen” that looks to the life of Dogen (Kantarô Nakamura), a 13th-century monk who founded one of the main Zen sects. The film attempts to enlighten viewers about the true art of Zen.

Dogen devotes himself to peaceful and purposeful meditation. The film begins with him as a child and coping with the death of his mother. It then follows him on his travels to China and his run-ins with the religious hierarchy in Japan. His dedication to spiritual enlightenment and his rather quiet and unshowy way of life make him an interesting if rather challenging choice for a religious biopic.

Director Banmei Takahashi treats his subject matter with respect and a certain seriousness, which does not mean he avoids humor altogether. He has an occasionally light touch as he tries to detail Dogen's journey and explore this particular aspect of Buddhism. The film is beautifully shot but only occasionally comes to full life. There’s always a hint of that historical re-enactment stiffness hovering over the scenes and keeping you a bit at a distance. But the film’s careful and thoughtful chronicling of Dogen’s life provides insights into his particular take on Buddhism, meditation, and Zen.

“Zen” (unrated and in Japanese and Mandarin with English subtitles) is a serious-minded exploration into a subject that has had a major cultural influence around the world. It’s often enlightening but it doesn't serve up great filmmaking. But it will leave you with something to meditate on.

Companion viewing: “Kundun,” “The Cup,” “Buddha’s Lost Children”

You can also check out the Buddhist Film Foundation's site for more films on this topic.

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