was a Buddhist monk dedicated to peaceful scholarship. Yet, his life indirectly inspired many
martial arts sagas. The classic Ming
novel Journey to the West is very
loosely based on his pilgrimage from China to India. While the novel is still widely read and adapted
to many formats (particularly the chapters involving the Monkey King), Xuanzang’s
historical odyssey is often overlooked.
Yet, it was quite a dramatic adventure by any earthly standard, as viewers
will soon learn from Jin Tiemu’s documentary The Great Pilgrim, which screens this Sunday during the 2013 InternationalBuddhist Film Festival Showcase in the Bay Area.
was born to a prominent family, but he was orphaned as a young child. As a result, the local Buddhist monastery
became his home at an early age. He had
a scholarly disposition, but was deeply troubled by the lack of Buddhist texts
available in China. In the Fifth
Century, India was still considered the fountainhead of Buddhist though, so
Xuanzang set on a pilgrimage to acquire and translate the great Sanskrit
teachings. It would be an arduous trek across
the Silk Road, through deserts, mountain passes, and hostile kingdoms.
to Xuanzang’s account and the writings of his disciples, the monk nearly died
of heat and dehydration during an early stage of his journey. It is clear that Xuanzang’s faith sustained
him, even to those unwilling to accept a higher authority in the matter. Throughout the pilgrimage, Xuanzang spread Buddhist
teachings throughout western China, Central Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
emphasizes the cinematic nature of the tale with dialogue-free dramatic
re-enactments and breathtaking shots of the sweeping ruins that once were the
great cities Xuanzang passed through. Indeed, following in the monk’s footsteps looks
like it would be a once in a lifetime tour for amateur archeologists. While the Chinese voiceover narration sounds
a bit overpowering at times, it presumably got the job done for domestic
Regardless of one’s personal religion, Xuanzang’s
story is hugely inspirational. Jin also
persuasively establishes his considerable historical importance as the author
of the monumental Great Tang Records on
the Western Regions and a geo-political game-changer who converted hostile
powers to Buddhism. A great looking doc,
Pilgrim features striking
cinematography and some richly crafted sets.
A shrewd selection for this year’s IBFF showcase, it vividly depicts an
enormously significant Buddhist figure without ever feeling preachy or didactic. Highly recommended as a documentary for those
who usually prefer narratives, The Great
Pilgrim screens this Sunday afternoon (3/3) at the Smith Rafael Center, as
the IBFF Bay Area Showcase continues.
Labels: Buddhism on film, Documentary, IBFF Showcase '13, Xuanzang