Thu, Jul 04, 2019 - Page 14 News List

Movie review: Walking Dharma

A documentary about Buddhist Tzu Chi volunteers highlights their tireless work and provides a glimpse into the lives of the less fortunate, but also feels like a lengthy promotion for the organization

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Scenes from Walking Dharma, a documentary about Tzu Chi Foundation volunteers in Taitung.

Photo courtesy of

Walking Dharma focuses on the volunteers of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation (慈濟) and the good deeds they do, and the entire film inevitably feels like a lengthy promotional video for the organization.

This remark in no way discounts the work that these volunteers have been doing for decades. They appear to be wholeheartedly dedicated to helping the disadvantaged in their remote communities in Taitung County, where many elderly live alone or have to take care of their grandchildren while the parents are away working.

The volunteers’ activities range from visiting elderly people barely able to take care of themselves, to helping poor children attend school by providing scholarships and negotiating with the caregivers who don’t see the value of education. Their devotion is exemplified by one elderly volunteer whose only concern about falling ill was not being able to continue doing Tzu Chi’s work.

The audience not only learns about the motives that drive these tireless volunteers; the film also offers a cross-section glimpse of the less fortunate in Taiwan, who are usually invisible to the public eye.

The volunteers are the vehicles through which the stories of these people can be explored, as it probably wouldn’t make much sense to make a film just about random disadvantaged people in Taitung. Gaining access or even finding them would also be a problem without the Tzu Chi volunteers.

The lives of the disadvantaged significantly improve through the volunteers’ efforts, offering hope and a positive message. Their gratitude is apparent in many teary scenes, leading the media to dub the film “this summer’s most heartwarming documentary.”

Film Notes:

Walking Dharma (如常)

DIRECTED BY: Chen Chih-an (陳芝安) and Hsieh Hsin-chih (謝欣志)

Language: Mandarin and Hoklo with Chinese and English subtitles



Directors Chen Chih-an (陳芝安) and Hsieh Hsin-chih (謝欣志) spent a year-and-a-half shooting in Taitung, turning 7,000 minutes of footage into a 71-minute montage. Media opinion is right — it’s a feel-good yet heartbreaking, emotional ride, but there isn’t much conflict nor enough ups and downs to make the storyline gripping.

Watching the passion with which these elderly volunteers perform their tasks, however, did make this reviewer feel bad about talking about doing volunteer work for years but never getting around it. Hopefully it will have this effect on other audience members too, as there will only be more people in need as Taiwan’s society ages.

But there’s just something that still makes this film feel like a long commercial promoting the Buddhist organization. Perhaps it’s how slickly produced it is, how many times the words “Tzu Chi” are mentioned and its institutions and logos shown — that can’t be helped as the volunteers are constantly wearing the organization’s uniform — or how perfectly touching every scene is.

That said, it’s not overdone. For example, at least there are no bigwigs from Tzu Chi raving about how much good they’ve done for Taiwan. The entire story is told through the volunteers. There are no talking heads, which is the right decision for such a film, especially when there is so much footage from which to draw.

If anything, the film serves to remind us that while we go about our comfortable lives, these stories are happening all around us in Taiwan, and there are people who devote their time to doing what they can to help. Whether it promotes Tzu Chi or not, their individual stories are definitely worth telling.

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