Laura Clifford Robin Clifford
Writer/director Kim Ki-duk ("The Isle") uses the seasons as a metaphor for man's life while presenting Buddhist teachings and concepts of rebirth and nirvana in Korea's 2003 submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring."
As in his 2000 breakthrough, "The Isle," Kim contains his filmic landscape within a lake with floating residences, but to entirely different effect. This stunningly poetic movie posits that even though humans begin life as base creatures and commit terrible sins, enlightenment and harmony can be achieved.
The film begins theatrically, as the wooden doors of a dock gate swing open to reveal Kim's setting, a lake (actually a man-made pond from the eighteenth century) containing a floating Buddhist temple. There an old monk (Young-soo Oh) is tutoring a young boy (Jae-kkyeong Seo) in the philosophy of Buddhism. Spring relates a harsh lesson learned. When the master sees his giggling charge tying stones to a fish, a frog and a snake, he turns the tables on the boy, tying a heavy stone to the child as he sleeps. The next morning the monk tells the young monk that he will not be freed until he frees the creatures he's caused to suffer and that if any of them have perished, the stone will weigh upon his heart forever.
Once again the gates swing open to reveal Jusan Pond in summer. The boy has become a young man (Seo Jae-kyung), first seen observing mating snakes entwined. The two men's solitude is broken when a woman (Jung-young Kim) brings her daughter (Yeo-jin Ha) to the monks to recover from a mysterious illness. Proximity of the two young people has the expected, foreshadowed results. When the old monk declares the girl cured after finding her asleep with the young monk in their boat, she is sent back to her mother. The old monk advises the younger that lust inspires possessiveness which in turn leads to murder. The young man steals away, nonetheless, the temple's Buddha stored in his back pack.
Autumn finds the master considerably older, returning to his floating home with a white cat and provisions wrapped in newspaper. He sighs heavily when he spies an article confirming his prophecy. The now adult monk (Young-min Kim), on the run, returns to his master, who sets him on a ritual to free his anger. When two detectives arrive (Dae-han Ji and Min Choi), they allow the young man to continue carving the master's painted Pranjaparpamita sutras before taking him into custody. The old monk takes his protegee's earlier penance upon himself then turns his rowboat into a funeral pyre.
Much older now, the younger monk (director Kim Ki-duk) returns to his childhood home in the midst of winter and a woman (Ji-a Park), her head wrapped in a purple scarf, leaves her young baby boy (Jong-ho Kim) to repeat the cycle. The adult monk repeats his childhood penance on a grander scale for his greater sin.
Kim Ki-duk binds humankind to nature in a far more spiritual way than in his challenging "The Isle." Kim and his cinematographer Dong-hyeon Baek (Kim Ki-duk's "Coast Guard") highlight the beauty of even potentially dangerous creatures, like the snake, giving it its place in the world along with the dog, rooster and cat which reside on the floating temple during different seasons. Man's additions - the gates, boat and statues, are all symbolic bridges to harmony between man and nature. Doorways are representative not only of change, but of respected restrictions.
Perhaps most impressive are Kim's simple yet profound cyclic repetitions, which build to a climatic transcendental moment before once again returning to life's circular flow. In the first Spring segment, the young monk climbs atop a great stone Buddha in the woods and sees his entire world - the pond and its temple - from the eye-level of the Buddha. In winter, that same monk sets up a small female Buddha, crouches beside it and views his whole world - a tiny pond engulfed by the mountain range from which he views it. He's seeing from a higher plain, enlightenment. Rebirth is suggested when he carves an ice Buddha and places the wrapped bones of his master within it, before the young boy is delivered to him. Ki-duk only shows evidence of the perversity of "The Isle" when the master uses the tail of his white cat to paint the platform full of sutras. Later, brushes are made available to the detectives to help paint in their fugitive's work, making the cat's discomfort a quirky, inexplicable bit of business. But Kim's old master returns to his preaching of the prior season. When the detectives begin to row away with the master's protegee, the old monk's power holds the boat motionless for just a second, before he raises his arm and lets it slip away.
The scene opens on an isolated lake nestled in a forested valley. A small Buddhist temple floats upon the water and is occupied by an aging monk and his very young disciple. It is spring, once again, and the world is being renewed but the changing seasons take their toll in “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring”
As seems to be the norm for films coming from Korea of late, helmer Kim Ki-Duk uses the beautiful, sometimes haunting landscape to excellent visual affect. As in his diametrically different but similarly set “The Isle,” Kim uses water as a metaphor for safe haven. But, with “Spring…” he has matured tremendously as a storyteller and subtly and intelligently compares the changing of the seasons with the seasons of life.
The title suggests changing seasons and it does that quite well. But, the meat of the film deals with the seasons as transitions of life. We meet the old Buddhist monk (Yeong-su Oh) and his young monk-in-training (Jai-kyeong Seo) in their temple floating on a lake as the winter thaw finishes and the world is reborn with the arrival of spring. The old master teaches the youngster the ways of Buddha but boys will be boys and the child sets off on his own adventures with his master secretly following.
The old monk quietly observes the boy as he ties a rock to a variety of small creatures – a fish, a frog and a snake – sets them free and laughs as he watches their ordeal and suffering. The master, seeing the lad’s decidedly non-Buddhist behavior, ties a large rock to the child’s back while he sleeps. When he wakes the next morning, the monk tells him that he must wear the stone and seek out the creatures that he tortured. If they die the boy must carry the stone of his deed in his heart forever.
As the season changes from spring to summer the boy is now a teenager and has the same needs and desires as pubescents anywhere else in the world. A young woman is left in the old monk’s care to cure her of some unspecified illness. Of course, on an isolated lake in the middle of nowhere, the young people begin taking their first tentative interest in each other, culminating in frantic, lusty sex. The old man notices their furtive behavior and, when she tells him that she is once again well, sends her on her way. The young monk-in-training runs away from his master.
The seasons change, once again, this time from summer to fall and the young man, now 30, returns to his master. But, he has a checkered past that may involve murder. The aging monk sets the younger man on a task of penance when two detectives arrive at the lakes edge. They patiently wait as the disciple completes his assigned task and they take him away – peaceful in the scourging of his soul for his misdeeds.
Fall passes into Winter and, as the seasons are born, bloom, wither and die, so does life. The old man has reached his end and it is time to move on to the next level of his faith, to his Nirvana. Meanwhile, the young man has become older and takes his master’s place, doing further penance (bookending the rock incident when a child) for his past and earning, through ordeal, the right to become a master.
The story ends much as it began – it is spring and a young boy is put into the care of the old monk living on the floating temple. Life comes full circle.
Western viewers may have a problem with the quiet reflection of “Spring…” but, if you’re patient, the beauty and subtlety of the film is well worth the viewing time. The parallels between the four seasons and the seasons of life are beautifully handled by director Kim Ki-Duk who also took on the additional chores as screenwriter and editor. He shows a deft hand in creating quiet, meaningful moments of life, particularly the austere life of a Buddhist monk.
Production designer Stephan Shonberg creates an unusual and creative world in the floating temple. Doors are used where walls do not exist, carrying hidden meaning as the characters make use of the portals even when they don’t have to. Cinematographer Baek Dong-hyeon is a world-class lenser, making every visual aspect of “Spring…” a work of art.
Be prepared for a quiet, melancholy movie that provokes thought and contemplation. I give “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” a B+.
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