An Appreciation – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
A small monastery floats on a raft in the middle of a lake. In this monastery lives an elderly Buddhist monk, and the young boy he raises and trains. Their world is one of prayer, tradition, and harmony between all things. It’s here where they strive for inner peace – to be content with whom they are and the roles they have been placed in. Many of us strive to be better versions of ourselves, but what does that mean? Social pressures – especially in America – dictate that we must have more of everything: more food, more clothes, more money, etc. Is happiness found in monetary wealth, or in the pleasures of the flesh? Does fulfillment come with love? Or does the answer lie within us, in how we view ourselves in relationship with the rest of civilization and beyond?
It’s rare for a film to stir these questions in me in such a profound way. Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003) is a sublime study of spirituality and human nature. While I’ve never studied Buddhism, what Kim does so well here is take a South Korean setting, steeped in a particularly religious point of view, and craft its themes in a universal fashion. The ideas are relatable to anyone – it’s a story of life through all its joys and tribulations. From the exuberance and naiveté of youth to the wisdom and clarity that comes with age, Kim traces the ebbs and flows of an entire life, eventually coming back to the beginning. The choices we make shape who we are, giving us knowledge to pass down to the generations after us. It’s a continuous cycle, with no beginning or end.
Kim (who also wrote the screenplay) is clearly not interested in a traditional plot. He focuses almost entirely on this floating monastery and the surrounding wilderness. The outside world exists in bits and pieces: a visitor here and there, or a random clipping from a newspaper. Mostly, Kim remains in this one location. There is tranquility in this place. The cinematography (by Baek Dong-hyeon) often simply regards what is in the frame. We sit back and take in the beauty of the trees and rivers. The mountain ranges encircle the lake, making it a universe all its own. The monastery slowly floats about the lake as though it is a part of it, going along wherever the water flows. Events take place quietly. Some viewers may see this and criticize it for being boring; that not much happens plot-wise. But in reality, there is plenty that occurs, but it takes place within the characters. The conflict is internal – the journey characters take is one of enlightenment, the stakes being their very souls.
Because there isn’t a standard plot, the narrative takes an episodic approach as we follow the monk (Oh Yeong-su) and the boy throughout different points of their lives. The title is a direct reference to the passing of time, as we watch the boy grow into a teenager, a young man, and then into a full grown adult (played by Kim Ki-duk). Although the boy is played by different actors during each season, there is a thread that connects each version together. A critical moment happens early on. One day, the boy (mischievous as he is) decides to play a joke on some of the creatures of the forest. Using a string, the boy ties a rock to a fish, a frog, and a snake, laughing as he watches them struggle to move. The old monk catches the boy red handed, and as a punishment ties a large rock to the boy’s back, ordering him to find the animals and release them. If any of them perished, he will carry the stone in his heart the rest of his life. This event appears to have stayed with the boy through adolescence and into adulthood.
Of course, most others would see this and brush it off, saying that the fate of a fish, frog, and snake has little bearing to the fate of human beings. But it’s the consideration of these details that makes Kim’s film so special. Everything has importance, everything matters. Every creature is part of a larger whole, each one deserving a place to coexist naturally. Living a simple life is only negative to those that choose to see it that way. Choice plays a major role in how the monk and boy operate daily routines. Doors are used as a recurring motif. A large door sits at the edge of the lake, and doors separate the inner room of the monastery. Yet, these doors do not keep anything out. There isn’t a gate that separates the lake from the shore, there are no walls dividing the space within the monastery. It would be very easy for a person to simply walk around the doors, yet characters pass through them constantly. We sense there is a level of respect made with this, that people recognize the tradition of this place by passing through the doors instead of going around them.
That idea is challenged when the boy falls in love with a girl (Ha Yeo-jin) during his teenage years. Coming to the monastery to pray for recovery from an unknown illness, the girl arrives just as the boy enters young adulthood. There is a sexual awakening in both of them, their attraction causing a conflict with the life the boy has grown into. The self-made barriers come crumbling down, in one scene the boy and girl go around the doors of the monastery (not through them) and sneak off to make love. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The narrative doesn’t judge the boy or girl for having sex – it only presents it as a choice being made. When the monk discovers their affair, he mentions that it is only natural for people to grow close with each other. But he warns the boy that lust can lead to possessiveness, which can lead toward anger and jealousy. The monk doesn’t attempt to stop the boy when he decides to run away with the girl back to civilization.
We come to realize that the old monk is not the lead character, the boy is. His is the main arc; it is his life that we follow through time. Love, heartbreak, and tragedy enter his life, helping him come to the understanding of who is and accepting it completely. This is character development in the usual sense, but done in a way that some may not be used to. Years later, the boy returns as an adult, retreating back to the monastery after committing a terrible crime. The pain and sorrow bleeds out of the boy (now man) – he lacks balance and peace. To drive the hate from his heart, the monk instructs the man to partake in a ritual, carving out characters in the deck of the monastery with the very tool used to commit his crime. This helps the man contemplate his actions, it doesn’t excuse him for what he’s done but brings him to a place where he accepts his fate and no longer tries to flee. One of the more powerful scenes takes place when police officers track the man to the monastery, and instead of arresting him on the spot decide to allow him to finish. Even more revealing is when they actually help him, holding a candle to light the man’s way at night.
In what other story would this take place? In more conventional films, there would be a chase sequence, or maybe even a shoot out. But that would go against the nature of what Kim is going for. These characters are searching for a deeper truth, a connection between themselves and all other things. An action beat would only betray this ideal and prevent the man from growing into a wiser person. By the time the man reaches an older age, he has come full circle. The old monk passed away long ago, leaving the monastery open for the next person to take his place. Seeing the man take the position of the new monk points to a greater understanding of life in its simple complexity. Although portrayed by different actors and committing actions that goes against the beliefs of his culture, there’s no question that this is the same person that grew from a rambunctious young boy, to a troubled young man, to a content and wise older monk. His experiences have formed him and the lessons of the previous monk leave a strong impression because he now understands them from his own perspective. There are many examples of older people explaining how they do not miss their youth, that time has given them knowledge to be better people and to see the world with a keener perception. That’s the journey the man has taken. And it’s only appropriate that by the end, he adopts a young boy himself, a new student to whom he can pass his knowledge onto. Just as the seasons pass and repeat with gradual certainty, so does the cycle of life.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring is a breathtaking and mysterious film. It’s one of mysticism, love, joy, anger, and ultimately redemption. Kim Ki-duk explores the stages of a person’s life, and how personal weakness should not be seen negatively but as a means toward illumination. There is a magical undertone that remains throughout the narrative. In moments that could go unnoticed, Kim sprinkles details that belie real world explanation. The only way to get from the monastery to the shore is by rowboat. When the boy sneaks away to play his tricks with the animals, the old monk unexpectedly shows up to watch him. How did he follow the boy if he was not on the rowboat with him? When visitors travel to the shore, the rowboat returns back to the monastery as though it has a mind of its own, or somehow being controlled by the monk. How can this be? It’s as if these moments happen because they must happen – the monk must follow the boy because that is what is required of him, the boat must return to the monastery because that is what it needs to do. Everything exists to fit a role and to perform in conjunction with one another. And that’s where Kim’s film enters the pantheon of cinematic greatness. It ignores the limitations of the physical world to reach for the possibilities of the transcendental.