Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter ... and Spring
directed by Ki-duk Kim
(Sony, 2003)

There are some stories I can imagine being told only on film -- they could be written down or told orally, of course, but their transformation on film, the way cinematography is used as an element you can touch and rail against, is what makes their story linger.

Ki-duk Kim's Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter ... and Spring (originally Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom) may be one of the most awkwardly translated titles you'll come across, but his movie itself is magical.

Much of that magic comes from the writer/director's collaboration with cinematographer Dong-hyeon Baek and their creation of a Buddhist hermitage floating in the middle of an isolated lake. It's all artificial; Jusan Pond was created in North Kyungsang Province in Korea 200 years ago and centuries-old trees still rise up from its waters. The ancient gate to the outside world stands sentry well within the lake's boundaries, water on one side, water on the other, and the monk who lives at this temple, without fail, never enters either world without first passing through that gate.

Spring, Summer, the director has said, was meant to examine the emotions and stages of life as set against the passing of seasons -- the only thing Old Monk (Yeong-su Oh) and his young charge (Jong-ho Kim) see as the days pass. Minutes pass without dialogue, much as they would for these two, as the young boy explores the world around him with Old Monk's guidance.

Things start to change with the arrival of the outside world, in the form of a woman and her teenage daughter, just as the boy has reached that stage himself. The young woman is "sick in her soul," the mother tells Old Monk, and the young woman is left at the hermitage for the cure of time and contemplation. The young monk, though, is hardly prepared for the stirring her constant presence brings and, when their affair becomes known, she's asked to leave. The younger monk defiantly follows her, and Old Monk is left alone once more.

From the innocence of youth to the passion of young adulthood, the younger monk will slide through rage, fear, sorrow, contrition and redemption. We see it all, though we never leave Old Monk's side. And he, too, goes through that range of universal experience, though he never leaves his mountain-ringed lake.

Though much of Spring, Summer is unique to the Buddhist faith -- the prayers, much of the symbolism using animals, the way the younger monk will test himself upon his return to the temple -- the director has said in interviews that some parts are authentic, some fabricated, others the product of his own Christian upbringing.

The way acts of evil become a part of the person who enacts them, the emphasis on enlightenment, the possibility of redemption: all speak to a religious experience that stretches beyond Buddhism.

But it's the way the director examines these messages with a spare use of words that makes Spring, Summer so mesmerizing. There is less need for words when the actions of Old Monk and his younger counterpart are so eloquent.

And there's less need for a movie to artificially set up the next plot move when events and emotions arise with little warning, much as they can in real life. We're not always aware of the day we'll fall in love, or react in anger, or take action in a way that changes the course of our life.

It's all part of life, Spring, Summer says, both the good and the evil. Our reaction to life, our growth through it into better people, is what interests Ki-duk Kim, and it's a message that sails across whatever barriers language, religion and culture may erect.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 29 January 2005

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