ENLIGHTENMENT GUARANTEED

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“Too much enlightenment dazzles me.”

ENLIGHTENMENT GUARANTEED (Erleuchtung Garantiert) is a German movie about two very different brothers who travel to a Zen monastery in Japan in search of enlightenment.

The husband and father, Uwe, is an uptight kitchen salesman who is seemingly unconcerned and uninvolved in the children’s needs and cares less about his long-suffering wife.  One day he returns from work to find that his wife and children have left him. Uwe panics and grieves, then visits his brother Gustav, a jovial Feng Shu consultant who advises wealthy clients on how to rearrange their living spaces to avoid a negative flow of energy. Gustav has booked a trip to Japan, where he will stay at the Sojiji Temple, a Zen monastery in Monzen, Ishikawa, in order to study Zen meditation, hoping that the stay will help him find himself. Gustav agrees to allow Uwe to come with him.

The brothers undergo a brief ordeal when they become lost for several days in Tokyo. (Before they go to Tokyo, there is a prelude that takes place in Germany). They use up most of their cash at an expensive bar, and then lose any hope of getting more money when a bank machine takes both their cards. A miscommunication with a taxi driver takes them further away from the hotel, and Uwe desperately tries to get money by trying his hand at pachinko. Gustav is supposed to be the Japan expert, but his ability to quote Zen koans is useless is navigating the streets of urban Tokyo. Frustrated and hungry, the two brothers spend the night sleeping in a cardboard box and, later, they end up stealing a tent, which they pitch in a park. Rescued by a German expatriate who’s been waiting for years for a foothold in the fashion industry, they take jobs as waiters in a goofy Japanese version of a German beer garden.

Sleeping out and stealing food test their mettle and Uwe’s patience as Gustav continues spouting pearls, but it’s nothing compared to the monastery itself when they finally arrive. The brothers get to Monzen, but they are exhausted and unprepared for the rigorous demands of monastery life, such as waking up at 4:30 in the morning to scrub the floors and meditating in uncomfortable positions for hours on end, The austere routine of cold baths, constant cleaning, and meals eaten to a precise rhythm put both brothers at square one with a rude awakening for one of them about who’s got the right Zen stuff. Gustav comes to realize there is much more to Zen than quoting books and building sand gardens; the much-needed discipline has done him good, and is surprised to see that his brother Uwe has taken to life in the monastery and the teachings of the monks with an equal passion.
The adventures cause both brothers to reevaluate their lifestyles and attitudes, promising to make their lives better upon their return to Germany.

The director, Doris Dorrie, filmed ENLIGHTENMENT GUARANTEED without a script and with no extensive rehearsals. The actors were given a premise and turned loose to improvise in any fashion they choose. Uwe Ochsenknecht and Gustav Peter Wohler create the illusion of having been bickering brothers since forever, the tiffs a ritual of communication, though not one designed to foster closeness.

The filmmakers used guerilla-style tactics once the production moved to Japan, using the hand-held digital cameras to film in actual hotels and restaurants as if they were shooting a documentary. However, it’s really not meant to be a “film” in the traditional sense, it is more like a reality-TV-style travel flick, shot on video. The cinematography captures the poignant, evanescent beauty of the landscape and seasons, even in the city scenes, where we see and hear the ubiquitous crows of Tokyo, and, photographed from high above (a crow’s perspective, perhaps), black, ant-like swarms of people crossing a street. Gustav and Uwe are fictional characters but all of the Japanese people they interacted with were non-actors in real situations.

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ENLIGHTENMENT GUARANTEED is a gentle fable that unfolds at its own meandering pace. Like the road to enlightenment, it may not always be obvious where it’s going, but it never fails to satisfy. The movie is rich with subtlety and warmth. It is whimsically humorous and quietly insightful. This enlightened satire is not coldly seen from the outside. It is a warm, closely observed satire of lived life

The part of the movie which showed them wandering around the sprawling megapolis of Tokyo is on some level meant to be a metaphor for their cultural and spiritual cluelessness and disorientation as Westerners entering the culture and practice of Zen.

The central portion of the movie takes place in a Zen monastery, where the brothers undergo a rather different kind of ordeal in the form of a rigorously disciplined monastery life. Both brothers eventually do find enlightenment, in unexpected ways, naturally.

photo credit: nowwherewasi

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