Becoming Who I Was
(South Korea, 96 min.)
Dir. Chang-Yong Moon, Jin Jeon
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Despite his young age—five years old when production for this eight-years-in-the-making doc began—Padma Angdu is a wise and noble monk of noble standing and birth. The young boy is what the Tibetans call a “Rinpoche.” Angdu recalls receiving this title at the age of six when the high Lamas in his community recognised him as the reincarnation of a wise teacher. A formal ceremony enshrines this young boy as born again to impart wisdom that seems beyond the years of his small body.
Fortunately, Angdu has an equally wise teacher. His elderly godfather, Urgyan Rickzan, looks after him and teaches him the ways of the world, providing food and shelter as well as simple pleasures like play and companionship. But when the boy’s status elevates to Rinpoche, the hierarchy shifts and the student assumes rank over his guardian. Yet although the Rinpoche might perceive himself to have a calling higher than that of his godfather, who is the community’s only traditional doctor, there are basic elements of growing up that no child can learn without a mentor. It’s not that Angdu treats his godfather badly. He just seems ignorant to earthly elements despite being finely attuned to everything spiritual.
Fate gives a cruel turn for both Angdu and Rickzan. The young boy, growing up in Ladakh, India, where many monks live in exile following the Dalai Lama’s escape from China in 1959, fails to reconnect with the peers of his past life. As a result, the Lamas banish him.
What ensues is a transformative journey, a spiritual pilgrimage and coming-of-age alike as Rickzan takes Angdu back under his wing. The pair ventures forth on a return to Tibet so that the Rinpoche may find harmony with his past self and continue his teachings. Angdu discovers his godfather’s self-sacrifice throughout the long and arduous journey.
The film has a stirring and awe-inspiring air of serenity that befits its subject. Striking drone shots use the powerful magnitude of the natural landscape, particularly in the final touching moments in the snowy mountains, to let viewers look over the boy like an all-seeing eye from the heavens. The devotion and selflessness on display in the film is truly touching, too, in the elder godfather’s dutiful care for the boy. Becoming Who I Was seamlessly lets the scope of the complex socio-historical backdrop wash over the film as the young boy struggles to make sense of the disconnect between life in desolate Ladakh and the calling he feels for Tibet. Becoming Who I Was is a film of quietly moving grace.
Becoming Who I Was opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on June 15.