The cycle of life, death and rebirth, seen from a Buddhist perspective, is depicted with charm, elegance and dramatic resonance in Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring,” a visually enthralling, spiritually uplifting film that portrays a man’s journey from childish naivete to mature enlightenment and emphasizes the universal character of the experience.
The film is set at a lovely, isolated lake where the sole dwelling is a hermitage-houseboat inhabited by an aging monk (Oh Young-soo). The quiet, ruminative narrative is, as the title indicates, divided into four sections, set in the different seasons and at various times. In the first, during a radiant spring, the monk teaches his young charge (Kim Jong-ho) to respect the natural order by forcing the boy to undergo pain similar to that he has inflicted on animals. In the next, during a summer years later, the boy, now on the cusp of manhood (Seo Jae-kyung), is aroused by a young girl (HaYeo-jin) whose mother (Kim Jung-young) has brought her to the monastery for a spiritual cure, and he leaves the place, apparently to follow her home. The third section, to which the word “fall” applies in more than one sense, shows the now-grown man (Kim Young-min) returning to the monastery a hunted criminal and undergoing a cleansing ritual before returning to the outside world to accept his punishment. In the final segment, the man, now in middle-age (writer-director Kim Ki-duk), returns to the monastery, which is deserted and locked in the wintry, ice-covered lake; he essentially replaces his departed master. A shrouded woman brings an infant to the monastery and, in leaving, falls through the ice to her death, and the restored monk becomes mentor to the child, beginning the process anew.
Though portrayed in Buddhist terms, the tale is clearly the equivalent of the Biblical story of paradise, temptation, fall, repentance and redemption, and for the most part it’s told with unforced elegance and quiet authority. Baek Dong-hyeon’s camerawork is gorgeous, capturing the beauty of the landscape with uncommon skill, and the cast succeed in portraying types without denuding the characters of humanity. (Kim Young-min comes across a bit too forcefully in the “Fall” segment, but it’s a minor blemish.) Kim Ki-duk manages to invest a tale which might have easily descended into schematic didacticism with real emotional power, giving viewers not only a splendid surface in which to luxuriate but a moving argument as well. And he’s intelligent enough to realize that occasional doses of earthy humor help to moderate what could come across as preachy; the two cops who show up to drag the young monk back to civilization to answer the charges against him provide fine comic relief at exactly the right time.
Austere in style but deeply humane in its outlook, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” is a rare achievement. The worst thing about it, in fact, is probably that unwieldy title. But don’t let it–or the fact that it’s in Korean with subtitles–deter you from seeing this remarkable film.