Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring

a film by Kim Ki-Duk

This quiet, sparsely-spoken film (in fact the final half hour is completely dialogue-free) packs more emotional punch, without even seemingly trying, than most films who are aiming at those proverbial heartstrings.   This South Korean monk's tale of childhood, awakening young man, angry confused adult, wisened enlightened older man...and rebirth towards a new generation reminds one of the powerfully melancholy Russian film, Mother & Son, by the existential nomad Alexander Sokurov.   Although Sokurov's film can be catogorized in the daring cupboard of masterpiece and this film "only" in the realm of very very good, the two films are similar in both their minimalistic approach toward cinema and their simplisticly visual beauty.   The action is never overshadowed by the striking landscape, but then again, the mountains are never to be forgotten.

Early on in the film (the first Spring chapter) we see the child playing in a pond and laughing giddily.   But it is not innocent fun.   The boy is tying small rocks to the backs of a fish, a frog and a snake and letting them struggle their way back home.   That night, the boy's monk master ties a large rock to the boy's back and tells him to go and find these animals and release them and if any of them are dead, he will be trapped with that internal pain the rest of his life.   The boy finds the frog alive but the fates had other ideas for the fish and the snake.   This first chapter ends with the boy loudly crying about what he has done.   Later in the film (the Winter chapter) the boy, now a grown man and recently released from prison from a murder charge, brought on by confusing desire and a painful obsessive lust, returns to his home in the valley.   His master now dead, we watch as the boy/man ties a great stone to his back and drags it (along with a Buddhist statue) to the top of the tallest mountain in sight.   His penance is now complete and it is now his turn to become master, and everything will now come full circle.

All this, for those of you who have come across the ways of Buddhism, know that this is set up to co-exist with the four noble truths.   The first truth is that all life is suffering and we see that with the child and his "playing" with the animals and his master's punishment with the rock.   The second noble truth is that craving something is the cause of the suffering and we see that as the now young man loses his virginity to a beautiful young woman who has come to his master to be healed, and he is chastised by his master as she is sent away.   The young man too will leave his master's valley, searching for his awakened desires.   The third truth is that it is possible for this suffering to cease.   We see that as the young man is running from the police after murdering his philandering wife (the same young woman from before) and he comes back to his master to hide away.   When the police show up, they are left standing for a day and night as the young man carves out a healing sutra in the floor borads of his master's abode.   The scene is terrificly moving in its subtle healing power.   Finally we reach the fourth noble truth, which is the way to the solution as we watch the man climb his mountain weighted down by his past suffering, and we watch the man healing as he ascends.   The man can now practise the Noble Eightfold Path of a good life and teach these ways to the next generation.

A tale of lost innocence and murderous redemption, Spring, Summer... plays out like a Buddhist parable, underlined with a saddening mysticism and always just this side of full blown magic-rearing.   Reminiscent of Tian Zuangzuang's Chinese masterpiece The Horse Thief, we watch as Buddhist rituals are being performed and we are never let in on the little secrets of what everything means, and we should not be.   Let the mystery be (granted most of the rituals were made up by the admittedly Christian director).   I've studied Buddhism (at least a little bit of it) and still, even with the film's falseness, the mysteriousness of its mythology is set off here in beautiful tones of blue and green and gold, as we watch the monk's home floating upon a crystally shameless lake, only briefly rippled by an erotic awakening, nestled in a valley that could be living right in the center of Shangri-la. [06/25/04]