In the past few weeks I discovered and quickly came to appreciate Samsara, a film released in 2001. Described as “a spiritual love-story” and taglined with “What is more important: satisfying one thousand desires or conquering just one?” this is a beautiful, captivating and challenging film that explores the dangers of desire, the nature of love and the conflicts we face on our spiritual paths.
The story follows a young Buddhist monk, Tashi (Shawn Ku), who is drawn out of his monastic training by desire for a woman, Pema (Christy Chung). He rationalizes his choice by saying Buddha experienced worldly pleasures before he was able to attain enlightenment. His abandon to desire leads him into a loving marriage but also into the temptation of wealth, influence and eventually into lust for Pema’s youthful and alluring friend Sujata (Neelesha BaVora). All of this culminates in a gripping and thought-stirring ending.
Much like Travellers and Magicians, a film I wrote about in February, Samsara included some elements of older ways in conflict with modern, western ways. In one of the more humerous moments of the film Pema’s father returns home in a leather jacket and other Americanized clothing (looking entirely silly), stressing the foreignness of Tashi’s desire for money. This conflict of worldviews is just as relevant in our own lives as in those of the peoples of India; constantly we are faced with discerning what change will benefit us and what change is harmful.
The main characters and supporting cast were incredibly well chosen. Pema and Tashi mesh well, both possessing a great deal of presence and visual appeal. Sujata was portrayed superbly by Neelesha BaVora; she was every bit as tempting, sure and beautiful as could be while still having an air of authenticity; in her final scene, Neelesha exudes confidence and sexuality as naturally as anyone I’ve seen in a film. Secondary characters were able to create a deeply immersive experience. Especially notable was one particular child cast as a novice monk; he was full of humour, joy and the pure energy of youth (and Buddhist monks at their finest).
Samsara opens with the koan-like question “How do you prevent a drop of water from drying?” carved into a rock along a road lined with many such rocks. I took the drop to be a metaphor for desire and thus interpreted the answer Tashi found on the other side of the rock in the ending, “Throw the drop of water into the ocean,” to mean that giving in to desire (and thus creating suffering) makes it never leave us. Interestingly, the other interpretations of it I’ve read have differed, suggesting it means Tashi should return to his spiritual path and forsake his wife and child or other meanings that seem less clear to me. I think this is an excellent aspect of the film, though, that it challenges us to question our assumptions.
I’ve been entirely enchanted by this film. There’s not much I can point to as a flaw and I simply enjoyed watching and rewatching it each time I did. This undoubtably falls high on my list of favourite films and I’m quite happy to pass along my enjoyment of this overlooked and undervalued gem.

2 comments on “Samsara

  1. I saw this one a month or so ago, picked it up while browsing the world movies section…

    I probably need to rewatch it sometime, as i think I was left with more questions than answers!

  2. I saw this one a month or so ago, picked it up while browsing the world movies section…

    I probably need to rewatch it sometime, as i think I was left with more questions than answers!

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