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Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...And Spring (2003)


There are explicit and implicit lessons to be learned from Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, so listen up. The first one is if you want people to see your movie it behooves you to come up with a more succinct title. The second one – and more pertinent to the film – is don’t tie rocks to little animals – especially if they are still alive. However, it’s okay to tie rocks to yourself as a way of self-punishment – especially if you’re doing it for spiritual reasons.

Directed by one of Korea’s hot young directors — Kim Ki-duk –Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a Buddhism-inspired fable that takes place during five seasons spread over many years and attempts — much like The Passion of The Christ — to merge the secular with the spiritual. But unlike that film, this one also gives us the relationship between man and nature as well as man and himself, and deals specifically with characters who try to attain some kind of harmony right here on earth.

The film is set in an idyllic Korean valley and most of the action takes place out on a lake on which floats a hermitage (monastery) where an old monk and his young protégé are living an austere existence. Each section of the film commences with the opening of a wooden gated threshold that stands at the headwaters of the lake like a curtain on a stage.

In spring, the older monk (Oh Young-soo) teaches valuable life lessons about the nature of cruelty and guilt to the child monk (Kim Jong-ho) who lives with him. The opening is simply told with little dialogue but has a couple of disturbing scenes to illustrate the lessons learned.

In summer, the young monk (Seo Jae-kyung) is now a teenager and must contend with his raging hormones when a woman leaves her ailing teenage daughter (Ha Yeo-jin) with the two monks to be cured, as well as find spiritual solace. While she is definitely cured, the only solace she finds is in the arms of the young monk who learns that love is very hard, especially when you are trying to find spiritual purity.

The most powerful episode is in autumn, and it deals with the return of the young monk (Kim Young-min), who left in frustration years before. Upon his return he has a difficult time with his old Buddhist ways and cannot adjust after having lived a completely different life in the real world. The old monk finds that he cannot calm him down and comes to the despairing realization that he may have failed as both a monk and a guardian in his upbringing of the young man.

In winter, the young monk (now played by the director Kim Ki-duk) returns again years later to see if he is ready to discipline his life and attain a spiritual existence. In …spring, the cycle starts all over.

If you have seen other films by Kim Ki-duk, such as The Isle, then you won’t be surprised to find a couple of shocking scenes of cruelty and violence but here Kim pulls back giving us few shocks and more reflection. The fact that he plays the young monk in the final section suggests that maybe he is going through his own spiritual change.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring was shot in Juwangsan National Park in South Korea and every frame is gorgeous. The pacing of the film too is right in tune with the location; nothing is hurried, the shots are exquisitely framed, and there is a good amount of silence to let the audience soak in the story as well as the spectacular location.

Despite the minimalist set, the film has a fine attention to detail. Each episode uses the motif of an animal — a dog, a rooster, a cat, a snake, and finally a turtle — all of which have a peripheral connection to each section. And while the set design is simple, it is also unique; apparently director Ki-duk and his craftsmen invented the idea of a floating monastery themselves.

The primary theme of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is that everyone carries a stone with them; either in their head or in their heart. Mostly it is a metaphorical stone but — as we see in one striking scene — that stone can be literal too.

Although it takes a while to flesh out its message if you are patient – and certainly if you are into Buddhism – it is a very rewarding film, even if you have to take a deep breath and slowly say the title.

Aka Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom.

We’re guessing this is winter.