Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer…”; A Minimalist Meditation on Life’s Seasons
by Peter Brunette
Into the jangling, over-wired chaos that most of our lives have become enters the lovely, Zen-inspired Korean movie “Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…and Spring.” A masterpiece of minimalism, “Spring,” which is directed by dynamo filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, focuses all of its energy, intensity, and attention on a tiny cast of characters and the single, resplendent location of a temple floating on an isolated lake. Its conceit, as Shakespeare put it, is that the world can be found in a blade of grass. Most magnificently, by focusing so simply but so obsessively on the natural world, it attends to what the great German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer called the true vocation of the cinema: the redemption of physical reality. After seeing this film, you will be changed. It is not to be missed.
The film’s principal structuring device — as is evident in its title — is the change of seasons. This motivic pattern can be found as far back as ancient Greek literature, of course, but rarely, in the cinema at least, has it been used with such purity and force. Beautifully interlaced with the seasonal backdrop (though of course it’s never only a backdrop) is a second structuring device, a story that follows the life of one young monk who ages through its five episodes.
When the film opens, it’s spring and the world is coming to life, renewing itself once again. The old monk (Oh Yeong-su) teaches his child apprentice (Kim Jong-ho) — who, like any healthy kid, is busy torturing small animals — about human responsibility toward the natural world and a valuable lesson in ethics to boot. The plot couldn’t be any more direct and basic. In “Summer,” the younger monk, now a strapping teenager (Seo Jae-kyeong), falls hard for a sick girl whose mother has brought her to the floating temple to be cured by the herbal ministrations of the senior monk. In this segment, all the silly and inessential trappings of sex that most movies are gorged with are left behind and director Kim shows it to us, more directly than I’ve seen it in years, for the pure and simple driving force it is. We expect the old monk to condemn his pupil when he discovers his nocturnal shenanigans, but, as he tells the young man, sex, too, is part of nature. Alas, lust also inevitably leads to possessiveness and, of course, the fallen world and this episode closes with the young man’s departure.
In “Fall,” the teenager is now an angry young man (Kim Young-min) who returns to his mentor while trying to escape the police for a crime he has committed. More lessons are learned, and director Kim, re-introducing the braying modern world in the form of two policemen shooting ducks in the lake, teaches us a few as well. The contrast between perspectives could not be more startling, and after setting the stage for his young charge’s redemption, the old monk disappears dramatically from the scene. “Winter” focuses naturally on the cold, dead world, including a gorgeous sequence of the younger monk practicing martial arts moves on the frozen expanses of the lake. Kim knows how to use the signifying potential of the entire film frame and here pictorial composition and luscious cinematography reach their peak. The monk puts himself on a physically rigorous course that will lead to spiritual purification, and when a baby is left with him, the entire cycle begins all over again. The reassuring, nearly beatific final segment, back to spring, is purposely brief. It features the same mentor/student relationship that the film began with and, interestingly, the mature monk is now played by the director himself. The film ends — where else? — on a shot of the Buddha’s imperturbable face looking down on the floating temple from a perch high on a hill.
Kim is a hyperactive director who likes a challenge, and his previous film, “Coast Guard,” a thriller set on the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, couldn’t have been more different. It’s difficult to know, in other words, to what extent “Spring” represents some deeply-held spiritual views, or whether he is mostly just trying to show off his cinematic prowess and extraordinary range. Also, it’s difficult for a Westerner to know how “authentic” this film is in terms of its depiction of Asian and Buddhist values; in fact, there’s a superfluous magical aspect to some of the older monk’s actions that bothered me slightly. In other words, there’s always the danger that, in a film like this, one is getting more movie Buddhism than anything real. Finally it doesn’t matter, I think, since the experience most viewers will glean from this superb meditation on life will itself be, by definition, authentic.