It’s that time again, dear readers. Time for another episode of the internet’s most popular movie segment. (Editor’s Note: That is a lie. You, sir, are a liar.) Today, for your navel-gazing pleasure, we present Korean director Kim Ki Duk’s 2003 meditation, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring.
Taking place in and around a small temple, floating upon a remote mountain lake, it tells the story of a Buddhist monk and his young protege, neither of whom are ever named. Told in five vignettes, each corresponding to a season, we watch the cycle of these two lives, one enveloped in spiritual discipline, the other consumed by selfishness. The actors here give wonderfully understated performances, though the real star is no doubt the scenery in which they perform. Kim had the set built on Jusan Pond, a 200 year-old artificial pond in Cheongsong County, North Kyungsang Province in South Korea and it makes for a striking backdrop.
Critics have suggested that Kim made Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring to distance himself from a body of work that features extreme violence, animal cruelty, and heaping helpings of misogyny. In all fairness, his preoccupation with sex and violence are still present, though mostly off-screen. The arc of the boy’s life, beginning with his torture of animals and continuing through the murder of his adulterous wife, are tried and true territory for Kim, but here they enjoy a degree of subtlety. The cruelty to animals is still in full view, however, and while it serves a central purpose it may upset some viewers, so please be warned.
I’m a very big fan of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, however I know people who absolutely despise it, mostly for it’s snail-like pace and a feeling that the film is aware that it is Important Art. The former is most certainly true. It is a slow movie. The camera seems to linger, perhaps a little too long, on every scene but, of course, that is the point. That leads directly to the accusation of being too self-aware, and on that count I disagree. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring has big, sweeping things to say about life, but it arrives at those ideas as simplistically as possible, gilding itself in plainness. What emerges is a story honed imperceptibly by degrees, a sum of surprising and seemingly incongruous parts. It may be in that way that it best embodies the Buddhist traditions it so beautifully portrays.