It’s like indulging in a monastic retreat in itself, exquisitely calm and beautifully restorative and pointedly observant about human nature and circles of life. From the moment we fade in and move slowly across that placid lake in that remote mountain valley toward the tiny Buddhist monastery floating on a raft, you’re no longer sitting in a movie theater. You’re swept away to that place—the tinkling of the wind chimes in the breeze, the gentle rustling of the fresh spring leaves of the trees on the shores. And because this is a film with a power to seep into your soul like few others can, long after the credits roll and the lights come up, it may feel as if you’ve never left this place.
I’ve never been quite so haunted by the loveliness and the wisdom of a film as I have in the wake of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... And Spring. South Korean Kim Ki-duk—writer, director and editor—has gifted us with a movie that’s impossible not to fall in love with. It’s gorgeously cinematic, told almost entirely visually and splendidly so, reserving its few snippets of dialogue for nuggets of sagacity that are devastating in their incisiveness.
It’s springtime as the gates of the little mountain lake open for the first time. They’re symbolic only, these gates—a child could easily walk around them—like the freestanding doors inside the floating monastery, a reminder perhaps of the artificiality of the barriers between human beings. Old Monk (Oh Young-soo) lives here with his young apprentice (Kim Jong-ho), an idyllic existence for the boy of picking herbs for medicine and frolicking with the puppy.
But an everyday adventure in the unthinking cruelty of children—especially little boys—breaks the mood of tranquility with which Kim eased us into this world, our first indication that this is not to be merely a pretty painting of a film. The lesson about pain and guilt that the old monk teaches his pupil in response to his cruelty—and the hardness of it for the boy—prove so profoundly affecting that I fear to reveal more about it. It’s so simple and obvious in retrospect, a lesson most of us (hopefully) learned ourselves as children. But it’s a simplicity and obviousness so penetrating that it’s below the radar of most films, so many of which are, of course, preoccupied with acts of unthinking cruelty that go unremarked upon. Spring, Summer ... is a kind of Zen koan in its very attention to the purest and most elementary things, the good and the bad alike, that make us human.
When we fade in again, it’s summer, the lakeside lush and almost unbearably green, the apprentice monk now a teenager. If you’d guessed from Kim’s lavish, loving attention to the elegance of nature (and from the title, too) that each section of the film would advance us a season along in the year—showing the lake and the monastery under autumn leaves and winter snows—then there’s an instinctive satisfaction in realizing that you knew Kim would take us through the seasons of life as well, following the apprentice monk to see if that early lesson either blossomed or withered, and what further lessons would spring from it. Summer’s education is in the cruelty of desire, autumn’s about letting go of rage, and winter’s (in which Kim himself, with serene aplomb, plays the apprentice monk turned the master) about penance and finding peace.
And so spring comes around again, and the monk takes on a new child apprentice, and the cycle begins anew, as it must, as we knew it would in a way that has nothing to do with Zen-ness or religion, in the way of life that we all recognize. There’s a startling universality here, a relevance that knows no cultural, no national, no gender boundaries. This is, simply, an astonishing film.
SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER ... AND SPRING, ****, Oh Young-soo, Kim Jong-ho, Seo Jae-kyung, Rated R