SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER … AND SPRING (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom)

(director/writer: Kim Ki Duk; cinematographer: Baek Dong Hyun; editor: Kim Ki Duk; music: Bark Ji Woong; cast: Oh Young Soo (Old Monk), Kim Ki Duk (Adult Monk), Kim Young Min (Young Adult Monk), Seo Jae Kyung (Boy Monk), Ha Yeo Jin (Girl), Kim Jong Ho (Child Monk), Kim Jung Young (Girl’s Mother), Ji Dae Han (Detective Ji), Choi Min (Detective Choi), Park Ji A (Baby’s Mother), Song Min Young (Baby); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Lee Seung Jae; Sony Pictures Classics; 2003-South Korea/Germany-in Korean with English subtitles)

“A wise and brilliant movie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It might be interesting to note that the South Korean director-writer-editor, the 44-year-old, Kim Ki-duk (“The Isle”/”Bad Guy”), of “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring,” the Buddhism-inspired parable, was raised as a Christian.

The stunning visual film encloses each frame with the penetrating isolation and austere beauty of an idyllic world, but one fraught with dangers. I believe that just viewing the splendid and impactful photography alone would have delivered the intended Buddhist message of harmony and cyclical renewal, but the film offers more in the way of vivid characters, a timelessly poignant story, and a perfect sense of pitch and cinematic accomplishment. In its simplicity, seemingly borrowed from ancient times, this modern morality play never wavers from being a wise and brilliant movie.

It was shot in a wilderness preserve in a national park where “the artificially constructed set of a small Buddhist monastery is made to float atop Jusan Pond (an artificial lake built 200 years ago) in North Kyungsang Province, Korea.” The refreshingly pure Buddhist tale about the harshness of life lessons follows the involved relationship between a little orphan boy (Kim Jong-ho) and an Old Monk (Oh Young Soo), who dwell on the houseboat floating on Jusan Pond at the end of a mountain path surrounded by a dense tree-lined valley.

The story unfolds in five chapters that coincide with the seasons of the title, as the boy reaches manhood and then old age, roughly covering a period of 30 to 40 years. The acolyte’s life is complicated by bad karma (cause and effect) in his early years, as these consequences affect the rest of his life.

Warning: spoilers throughout.

In “Spring,” the boy plays a cruel game in which he ties stones to a fish, a frog, and a snake, laughing at the burden he caused the animals. The next day, he wakes up to discover that the Old Monk has tied a large stone on his back. He is told that he must find and release the animals and if any of them is dead, “you’ll carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life.”

In “Summer,” a woman (Kim Jung-young) arrives at the monastery with her ill daughter (Ha Yeo Jin), after time spent in prayer, the Old Monk tells the concerned mother, “When she finds peace in her soul, her body will return to health.” After the woman leaves her daughter at the hermitage for treatment, the 17-year-old Young Monk (Seo Jae-kyung) can’t resist the attractive girl and this leads to a sexual relationship. The Old Monk does not discipline his pupil but warns him “Lust awakens the desire to possess, which ends in the intent to murder.” But the Young Monk is so overcome with temptation that he fails to hear what has been said and after the healed girl returns home, he follows after her taking the monastery’s Buddha statue and his meager possessions.

In “Fall,” the Young Adult Monk (Kim Young-Min), now 30 years old returns to the monastery as a fugitive from the law and the Old Monk’s warning proves to be true as the acolyte’s passion leads to a knifing murder when his wife leaves him for another man. To get rid of his anger and find peace within, the Old Monk orders his pupil to carve Buddhist sutras (sermons of the Buddha) with the murder weapon into the deck of the houseboat. Two policemen arrive to arrest the Young Adult Monk, but they allow him to spend the night to finish his atonement. There is a beautifully realized scene, where not only the pupil benefits from the lesson but so do the policemen who pitch in and help with painting the carvings.

In “Winter,” some years have passed, and the Old Monk is dead after sacrificing his life out of a great compassion for his pupil and because he feels responsible for his errant protégé. Ice covers the pond when the fortyish Adult Monk (Kim Ki-duk, the director himself) returns to bring back the stolen Buddha statue and resume where he left off in his training. He sharpens his mind and body, as he practices a martial art exercise on the ice. When fit again, the Adult Monk takes out a statue of the Goddess of Compassion, then attaches a millstone to his body with a rope and drags it to the top of a mountain. With this unique ritual act, not part of any Buddhist tradition but created by the filmmaker, the Adult Monk meditates, on a mountain peak overlooking the pond in the distance, on the suffering he caused others and on the suffering he has endured. When he returns to the hermitage a mysterious woman who has covered her face with a purple scarf arrives at the monastery with an infant. In the middle of the night she abandons her son, but while crossing the ice on foot she accidentally falls through a hole and drowns.

In “Spring” again, a time for renewal, the Adult Monk trains the young orphan to be a holy man, teaching him about Buddhism and the healing arts and compassion for all living beings.

There is nothing complicated to comprehend, the plain lessons are universal but seen from a Buddhist perspective that relies on a strong spiritual discipline and a need for meditation as a method to calm the mind. It’s a quiet film where a lack of dialogue emphasizes the contemplation of the natural world and the need to overcome the temptations of the world. It’s a generous and appealing film that should reach the beginner as well as the more schooled individuals in Buddhism with its purity and strong moral purpose, but its greatness can be appreciated by all through its overwhelmingly beautiful and disturbing visual splendor and in the appetizingly irrational way it treats life.

REVIEWED ON 6/4/2004 GRADE: A+    https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/