From a Big Bad Wolf to ‘The Woodsman’

Walter, an ex-convict charged for pedophilia, experiences apprehensive uncertainty as he re-enters the society 12 years later. He is seemingly reborn, but with repercussions of his past, with his personal hell carried over by unresolved karma. Even if he gives himself a second chance, will others do the same? Just because one was a criminal, does it make one more or less likely to be a repeat-offender? Would one now treasure freedom more, and be mindful not to make the same mistake? While criminals are potential repeat-offenders, are the rest of us potential first-timers? Reborn due to our misgivings, are we not already repeat-offenders in the cycle of Samsara?
The tagline says, ‘Nothing can undo the past.’ True, but we can outdo it by doing better in the present. Walter had to convince both himself and others that he is now a changed man. More torturous than distrust by others is by oneself. Commitment to the precepts is virtuous because it guards all from harm, including oneself. Peace of mind comes from knowing one will do no wrong. Though Walter’s work in a wood workshop had to be closely supervised, it was he ultimately, who had to supervise himself – when he visits the woods. With allusions to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, will he be a big bad wolf or the heroic woodsman who saves the day when he meets a girl in red?
Though with a restraint order of 300 feet from where children gather, temptation is still abound for Walter, represented by a stray red ball rolling to his feet. As unsure as the audience is on what he would do, he seems unsure too. Is Walter is a victim of circumstances or a potential victimiser. Perhaps this is exactly what to be portrayed – that people are not easy to understand, especially since they change. Only a fully lived life can be assessed fairly upon hindsight for its real integrity!

 The film explores the controversy of whether it is right to find out what’s wrong with others’ past – in order to warn others? Is this wrong if the person had really changed? How would we know? This is the tension between the right to know versus the right for privacy. Are dark secrets better left in the dark due to potential hateful discrimination? The truth is, information is always neutral, and should be used only for reference – with lots of compassion and wisdom. How else can we free ex-convicts from their ‘second’ ‘life imprisonment upon exit from jail? Ironically, discrimination of ex-criminals might push them to perpetuate their mistakes. If we hope others to be forgiving towards us, why do we not forgive others just as readily?

Much of Walter’s suffering arose from lack of confidence in his ‘reformation’, or lack of self-forgiveness for his past mistakes – thus the recurring nightmare of him ‘stalking’ through the woods. To cling on the idea that oneself should be ostracised for one’s mistakes is another kind of discrimination – because all deserve understanding. Even if the world forgives oneself, it wouldn’t matter much if one fails to forgive oneself. What required is sincere repentance and moving on. Self-demonisation is as equally pointless as being demonisation of others.

What is ‘normal’ sexuality? Is it that which is mainstream? But can one easily opt to ‘go mainstream’? Are some sexual urges normal, while all others are abnormal? Is it just as abnormal to discriminate? In Buddhism, sexuality is ‘embraced’ as it is, but it is also to be transcended eventually on the path to enlightenment – as it is but attachment to form. None of us are bound to sexual craving for life. Thankfully, there are no such things as irresistible sexual urges, or many could be involuntary rapists who get away with it due to their ‘needs’. Like Walter, we know pedophilia is wrong because it exploits and destroys childhood innocence.

Walter was forced to face his demons by living with temptations across his window, and the audience feels as uneasy as him. Is mere fantasising okay? All unskilful actions begin in the mind. However, the potential victimiser becomes the guardian when he puts himself in the victim’s position, when he fights against another pedophile who victimises a child. Walter doubly redeems himself by preventing not just himself, but another person from harming others. 

In Buddhism, the way to purify our negative karma is via practice of the Four Opponent Powers –   regret, reliance, remedy and resolve. Beginning with ‘regret’ (not guilt), we are mindful of the actions done to bring suffering to ourselves and others. Next, we identify our ‘reliance’ (or refuge), such as the Buddha (and his Dharma), who inspires us with his good example. This is followed by the ‘remedy’, where we commit to practices which alleviate the results of unskilful actions done. We then complete with the ‘resolve’ to never repeat those unwholesome actions.

As Thich Nhat Hanh taught on the importance of letting go of guilt – ‘Many of us are not capable of releasing the past, of releasing the suffering of the past. We want to cling to our own suffering. But the Buddha said very clearly, do not cling to the past, the past is already gone. Do not wait for future, the future is not yet there. The wise people establish themselves in the present moment and they practice living deeply in the present moment… By living deeply in the present moment we can understand the past better and we can prepare for a better future…

‘If we stick to our suffering, we can never stand up for healing and prepare the future for our children and their children. I would say to the Vietnam war veteran, okay, you did kill five children… But here you are, alive in the present moment. Do you know that you have the power to save five children today? You don’t have to go to Vietnam or Southeast Asia. There are American children who are dying every day; they may need only one pill to be saved from their illness…

‘Why do you let yourself get caught in guilt and become paralyzed year after year? Why don’t you make a Bodhisattva vow to use your life to work for the safety of many children? Did you know that 40,000 children die in the world every day just because of the lack of food and nutrition? You are here; you can do something. Why do you let yourself get caught in the past? You can save children in the here and now. You can use your life in a very useful and intelligent way. You can very well transform that negative energy into a positive energy that empowers you and makes life meaningful.’