"Gorgeous! Two brothers discover zen in spite of themselves."
Watching the two brothers relate to each other, especially the innocuous scene where Uwe tells Gustave that he's gay, is like watching two friends on a road trip. Enlightment Guaranteed is a buddy film above all else and the two men cling to each other as support through a difficult period and share in the ecstasy of overcoming their adverse situations which was more a shift in perception than anything. They will need each other when they get back to Germany to make sense of the changes in their lives.German with English subtitles.
Uwe is a feng shui practitioner who practices a yuppie version of Zen is finally going away to a retreat in a real zen monastery in Japan. Gustave's wife has just left him and he shows up at Uwe's house distraught and hopeless and as he gets more and more drunk, begs to go to Japan with Uwe. Uwe relents and the next day on the plane, Gustave sobers up and discovers he is on route to a greuling retreat to a zen monastery. Uwe gives Gustave a paperback introduction to zen which Uwe uses to ridicule his brother's quest for "enlightenment". It turns out they don't need the book or the monastery, life is going to show them the eightfold path the buddha discovered.
The script unfolds like the eightfold path. The first step is to realize that all of life is suffering. The film starts in a moment of great loss and suffering. They lose their passports, their money and they even lose their hotel and are left to fend for themselves in an alien environement with no resources. The only thing left for them to focus on is what is happening in each moment. They have no past, there is no future and each present moment is all they have to work with to meet their basic needs and get to their goal.
They eventually find the monastery through the help of an ex-patriate German woman who helps them find a job in a comical theme restaurant where it is always Oktoberfest. These are modern Germans, well-off and educated in art and design living sophisticated and creative lives and to see themselves caricatured as leiderhosen wearing yokels serving beer helps to adjust the frame of perception other cultures may have of Japan. Japan is a modern nation and the scenes of Tokyo with spiky haired young people on cell phones reminds the audience that Japan is not lost to history.
Enlightment Guaranteed is an apt name. Filmed in Japan at an actual zen monastery, we get to see the daily regime of the monks and their place in modern japanese society. Gorgeous ceremonies and daily disciplines seem constricting at first but then open up to show the daily practice as merely a container for a wellspring of open-ness and deep self-searching. The practice is intended for the practitioner and in order to experience life in that way, one must spend years in daily discipline and spiritual practice. Our protags don't have to wait that long because two weeks is enough to bend their life into a new awareness of what it means to live and to act and to be. I would say they gain a deeper appreciation for their life and live each moment as a rare and precious gift because the end of the road could come at any time. Living for the future postpones the joy of life in the present. And each hurdle they overcome brings them a new sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
The cinematography is bold and beautiful. Rich, contrasting colors and scenes of stark light and dark are objects of the film themselves and worthy of attention. The camera lingers over scenes so that we may appreciate the chaos of life unfolding into startling patterns where one can learn the silent lessons of Zen Buddhism.
Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I feel like I really know these characters. Idealistic creative people who want to challenge the status quo but gorge themselves on material artifacts seeking to fill the spiritual vacuum in their life but think that they can shop around and purchase a meaningful life in much the same way they trekked across India looking for colorful trinkets at bargain prices. Many of those people who live in my neighborhood are still taking workshops, trying new diets, switching religions and gurus more often than they change their underwear and still don't seem to understand why they can't get off the treadmill.Uwe and Gustave get thrown off the treadmill without really looking for it but were savvy enough to integrate that experience into their life as a lesson in life, free of charge, compliments of chaos.