Thailand 2003
Directed by Sutape Tunnirut.

A Thai version of the heartwarming Buddhist legend of an outcast driven to murder by his teacher, and by his Dharma, collecting 1,000 fingers as his fate, until the Buddha enlightens him and he gives up finger collecting, even though he was totally almost finished and just needed one more to collect 'em all.

The boy Ahimsaka (Jayanama Nopachai) was born an ill omen, destined to become a killer. But instead of killing him, the King felt compassion, and sent him to Taxila (the Harvard of its age), to be trained in all arts. He believed that he could be trained out of his murderous birth.

The teachers at Taxila are having nothing of it. "To any soul he owes a debt of gratitude, he'll repay with disaster," the Guru helpfully explains. This redemption idea is also foreign, coming from Siddhartha, a nobody in the Brahmin world. To the guru, you cannot avoid your fate. So naturally, he goes about creating it for Ahimsaka.

But he doesn't go all out in making Akimsaka's life a living hell until the guru gets a wife (Stella Malucchi), who turns out to be an untouchable. He banishes her, recommending she kill herself, but Ahimsaka intervenes and is immediately accused of kidnapping and dispoiling the guru's wife. Talk about never cutting a break!

He flees his guru, and then a holy mountain God explains to him that fate cannot be broken. Instead, it must be fulfilled, and 1000 people must be sacrificed like goats to the God to attain Dharma. And so he becomes a mass murderer, worshipping a bloodthirsty God that drives him mad. Whereas most versions of this story focus on personal salvation, the cruelty of humanity and rising above it, this version of the story quite plainly turns the story into a battle between religions, with the complex rites and Gods of Hinduism on the one hand and the new, clean, and non-political (at first) Buddhism. To be saved, Akimsaka must reject the old religion and embrace the new.

ANGULIMALA is really less about this story, however, than about the slick style of the production. It's a very visually rich movie, but given the stark mountainside location, the richness is evoked through costume (often just mud covering for the bandits), lighting, and blood. Along with the visual style is a pounding soundtrack that is excellent but repetiitive. Even the best of songs gets old when you hear it over and over again, and that's what happens here, as if a complete score couldn't be entirely afforded. Coupled with the fact that the endless killing of the second half also gets repetitive, and it adds up to a film that slows down and makes killing routine and boring -- perhaps, this is also part of the message.

It's worth watching for its production style, and for its message, however muddled. The message ANGULIMALA is as difficult to comprehend today as it was when the story first circulated a thousand years ago. How can a murderer be allowed to live? How can he be redeemed? The story of ANGULIMALA suggests that it is possible, all you need is proper guidance and a good environment. Killing the person is out of the question. How does this sit with our current prison system, that focuses on punishment over rehabilitation? And of course the death penalty? It's not surprising that there is a Buddhist program that visits prisons and works with inmates named after this most violent of all bodhisattvas.

[One of just a handful of films that could be called Buddhist action films. For more, see ASOKA (2001, India) and RUNNING ON KARMA (2003, Hong Kong).]

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 06, 2006.

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