Kim Ki-duk
 Kim Ki-duk
 Baek Dong-hyun
Su Oh-yeong, Kim Young-min, Seo Jae-kyung, Kim Jong-ho, Ha Yeo-jin
 106 min
Trailer:on YouTube
Official Website: Sony Classics

As already hinted at in the title, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring invokes the passing of the four seasons during the course of a year, but also comes to represent the cycle of life – childhood to old age – in Kim Ki-duk’s 2003 film through a Buddhist monk and his elderly master. The story is simple: split into five segments – one for each season in the film’s title – we observe the monk as a small child, no more than 5 or 6 years of age, progress to his youth, adulthood and middle age, each offering distinct life lessons to be learned.

The two characters, who remain nameless throughout, reside in a small temple in the middle of a lake somewhere in South Korea. As their dwelling can only be reached via a single boat, they live in near-complete isolation and have little contact to the outside world. Viewers partake in the remoteness as the film’s setting never ventures out of this limited area. Scenes take place on the lake, the nearby shore, or, in one case, on the top of a shore-side mountain, which however only reinforces the isolation: the view from up top reveals more mountains, to the very end of the distant horizon, no signs of human life anywhere.

The temple’s remoteness reflects the separation that exists between the spiritual and the secular that emerges throughout Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring, particularly in the third part, which offers the film’s most compelling scenes. The monk, now an adult in his thirties, returns from an extended stay in the secular world, but is full of anger and frustration. He is a changed person: physically almost unrecognisable and spiritually completely drained, he is clearly suffering from the hardships that secular life imposed on him. It is a scenario that could easily be interpreted as criticism. Although Buddhism offers refuge – the character’s peace of mind finally returns after spending a night carving out a sutra – it does not help survive in the world beyond the lake, a world full of irresistible desires and terrible deeds even for a person as submerged in the Buddhist way of life as the monk.

Being reflective in its subject matter and offering some beautiful shots – of the scenic lake, of Buddhist rituals performed by the monks – Kim’s film was well received at festivals around the world and increased the director’s international standing. Many reviews sing it praises – it has an impressive 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – and commend it in particular for its meditative nature. For myself, however, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring was not quite so accomplished: it lacked the fascination of Kim’s 3-Iron. Although both films have many dialogue-less scenes and are slow-paced, 3-Iron was intriguing and distinctly sophisticated in its use of symbolism, as well as raising some complex ethical questions through the violence displayed. Hints of this did exist in Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring – the ritualistic usage of door frames, the identity of the disguised woman and the significance of her death, the new child monk in the second spring segment that looked identical to the first one, a few, unsettling scenes of violence – but none carried as much significance or piqued interest in the way they did in Kim’s 3-Iron. Moments were briefer and frequently existed separately from one another, while in 3-Iron they constituted unmissable parts of a narrative whole in which even the irritated glance of a middle-aged man driving his car out of the garage foreshadowed conflicts to come. 3-Iron also allowed greater sympathy with its (in some way very flawed) characters by giving a much fuller view into their psyche and experiences, while the monks of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring – presented at different stages of life with significant gaps in between – always felt more distant. Other characters – the ill girl, the detectives, the woman with the scarf – made too seasonal, too fleeting appearances for us to really care about their eventual fates.

With Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring preceding 3-Iron by a year and another film, 사마리아 (Samaria aka Samaritan Girl) also having been made in between,  any ‘lack’ present may be attributed to the director not yet having refined his craft as much, although it seems critics generally would disagree with me. It may be personal then. Plenty reviewers, symptomatic of West looking East, were charmed by the film’s Buddhist elements:

“as close to a Zen experience as a movie may offer” (Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel)
“one Eastern film that shows a world view that is very different than the Western view of the universe” (Robert Roten, Laramie Movie Scope)
“a mystical primer on Buddhist spirituality” (Jay Antani, Los Angeles Alternative)
“the purest and most transcendent distillation of the Buddhist faith ever rendered on the screen” (Andrew Sarris, New York Observer)
“The triumph of Spring, Summer is that even those of us who don’t happen to be Buddhists can catch a glimpse of ourselves in the spinning wheel of hope, destruction, suffering, and bliss.” (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly)

Having lived in (Buddhist) Asia as a child, such fascination of ‘the Other’ was lost on me, even if certain scenes – e.g. the sutra painted with the tail of a cat, the suicide ritual of pasting calligraphed paper over eyes, mouth and ears – did raise questions on how much such scenarios were Kim’s artistic interpretation of Buddhism.

Overall Verdict: Although a well-made and beautiful film, it does not quite intrigue in the way that Kim’s 3-Iron did.

Rating: 7.5/10

Bonus bits:

  • The film’s director, Kim Ki-duk, plays the monk in the winter and second spring segment. Apparently, this was not planned from the start but the result of the actor originally cast for the role having become unavailable.
  • The Korean title evokes Buddhist reincarnation, the English translation slightly perplexes with the insertion of “…” – as if adding hesitation and briefly interrupting the cycle.
  • A recent article on Kim Ki-duk.
  • Darcy Paquet’s very insightful review of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring from his website on Korean cinema.

Image Gallery: