- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2004

In a very early scene in Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring,” a little boy is approached by a snake. Just as we’re getting ready to grimace, the boy nonchalantly picks up the snake and tosses it aside as if it were a harmless stick.

Immediately, we’re reassured; this film is not going to make cheap appeals to your emotions.

Instead, “Spring” is a simple, beautiful and profound meditation on sin, moral growth, penance, the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life. At least to this Catholic viewer, “Spring” is the rare film (“The Passion of the Christ” being another) that embodies a whole religion, in this case Buddhism, simply by exuding it through every pore.

Mr. Kim starts his movie in spring, with a boy (Kim Jong-ho) given to torturing animals by tying stones to them. Hoping to teach him a lesson, an elderly Buddhist monk (Oh Young-soo) imposes a penalty that he’ll carry to the end of his days.

In summer, sex enters the picture, in the form of a teenage girl (Ha Yeo-jin) arriving to have her sick mother healed. The boy, now a young man (Seo Jae-kyung), follows the flesh and leaves.

In fall, the young man (Kim Young-min) returns, in trouble with the law as a result of those worldly desires. As he leaves again, the elderly monk performs an act of mourning.

In winter, the man, now a monk himself, arrives at the frozen, abandoned temple, receives another visitor from out of the past and performs the final act of penance, involving a stone. The fifth season brings everything back full circle, but the title of the film probably told you that anyway.

The film’s style is spare, and elemental characters are not named; there isn’t much dialogue; the plot points are few, simple and clearly segmented into the seasons of the title. It isn’t obvious until fall and the appearance of police that this film is taking place in the present day — and the whole point is that it doesn’t really matter.

The film follows a character played by four successive actors, again as if to emphasize that particularity doesn’t really matter here; you could make the same picture about four different men, to much the same effect. “Spring” has a single setting — a small temple floating on an artificial lake — that it never abandons, except for one (amazing) shot near the end. The main musical theme, a mournful bit of electronic emptiness, plays the same four measures over and over (with slight variations), following the seasonal cycle but without musical resonance, as if there’s a void at the very heart of existence.

Much as I like “Spring,” it does share the same “vice of its virtue” flaw as “The Passion of the Christ.” Mel Gibson’s film was so Catholic to its bones that much of the detail went over the heads of non-Christians. Similarly, “Spring” can be inaccessible to non-Buddhists. For example, a lengthy scene has the fugitive from justice carve out Korean characters on the temple’s wooden deck and then paint them, like Bart Simpson writing on the chalkboard. Is this a standard penitential rite, like writing lines? Do the words themselves matter? It might have been obvious to Koreans or Buddhists, but I’m neither.

For those familiar with some of Mr. Kim’s previous work, “Spring” plays like a radical autobiographical shift in the director’s soul, as if he got religion or just grew up. His past work could often be gratuitously nasty. “

Address Unknown,” for example, has a scene of a dog being slapped that is just short of unwatchable and isn’t the ugliest thing in the movie (that would be a bullet in the eye). “Bad Guy” has a student being blackmailed into prostitution and beaten by her pimp until she falls in love with him and they live happily ever after. “The Isle,” made in the same spare style as “Spring,” had unfaked scenes of caught fish being sliced up and left to die on camera, and another (presumably faked) scene in which a character swallows fishhooks and then has them fished back out.

By contrast, “Spring” is uplifting and happy, at least in the astringent sense that Buddhism allows. But it’s like watching Jane Fonda make a movie about the nobility of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The first segment in particular seems like a bid by Mr. Kim to make amends for his earlier tendency to torture his own characters, much like “Spring’s” little boy tortures the animals. And the last segment has the 44-year-old Mr. Kim himself play the elderly monk performing the final penitential act that just wows you.

 

***1/2

TITLE: “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring”

RATING: Rated R for some strong sexuality.

CREDITS: Directed, written and edited by Kim Ki-duk. Produced by Karl Baumgartner and Lee Seung-jae. Photography by Baek Dong-hyeon. In Korean with subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

 


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