Korean writer-director Kim Ki-Duk departs from his earlier work in his ninth film, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring,” as he explained through an interpreter during a recent visit to Dallas. “It’s definitely different,” he said. “The others were somewhat shocking. This is definitely a change of pace.” It’s essentially a quiet, ruminative piece about the cycle of human existence, in which the seasons represent the stages in the life of a boy novice on an isolated houseboat-monastery who, after learning to respect the natural world around him, grows up to experience lust, a fall from grace, and eventual redemption and enlightenment. By the close he’s returned to live at the tiny monastery and takes on a pupil of his own.
Though “Spring, Summer” is set in a Buddhist environment, Kim–a Christian himself–said, “It’s not a religious film. It’s really about people living their lives–life happening.” He went on: “I’m just trying to create films that reflect life, and what I feel about life…[The film] does reflect my experience in life. It is personal, but it’s really as you live life, what life is about. You live and you die. Our lives are similar to the seasons–we’re born and we die. As the seasons change, as human beings we change as well. The seasons are reflections of the different points in our lives, the different changes.” And that, he implied, is a universal experience, not unique to any particular religion or even religion in general. As to the effect it’s had on the audiences–including American ones–with whom he’s viewed the film, Kim said, “They look at the movie, and it makes them reflect upon their life. That’s the effect it has.” But, he added, the picture benefits from repeated viewings. “It’s simple to understand this movie the first time,” he said. “[But] if you watch it more times, you get a little deeper understanding of what I’m trying to communicate…There are a lot of movies that you can see just once and understand very well, but there are movies that you can see a second or third time, and it changes each time. This is that kind of movie.”
A good deal of the magic of “Spring, Summer” comes from the lake setting, a single locale in a Korean national park. “It was all done in one location,” Kim said. “It was very important not to go anywhere else, but to do the film completely at that one location from beginning to end.” He explained: “I did the screenplay first…and then…found the location. Actually we were going to build a temple on a mountain, but then turned to making the temple on the water instead.” The houseboat character of the structure was an imaginative jump on Kim’s part: “Actually they don’t have that, but I thought of it and then it was created. And right now it’s gone. The location is a national park, and you’re not allowed to to build any kind of housing there. [But] for the whole year [of shooting] it was there. We got permission to leave it there for the whole year…We shot the whole year there; for every season, we had to come back and shoot for about five days…If you count all the actual days it took to make the film, it only took twenty-two days. That’s not a whole lot of time, so you have to film very quickly…We had only one or two takes to get the shots.”
Kim not only wrote and directed “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring.” He also plays the lead character in the final, winter segment and the epilogue. “This is the first time that I’ve actually been in the film,” he explained, and it wasn’t planned. “Actually, the actor that was supposed to do it was a last-minute cancellation. I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. We couldn’t lose the opportunity with the snow. It was a timing situation. We had to grab that opportunity and complete the film. The seasons are more important than the characters themselves in this film, so we had to capture the seasons. The time period for the snow to cover that lake and freeze over is not very long.” As to the difficulty involved in taking the extra job, Kim added: “I just did whatever I wanted to do–I’m the director.”
But he added, “I don’t think I’ll do it again. It was too cold, and it was a lot of work.”