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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring (review)

The Power of Zen

It’s like indulging in a monastic retreat in itself, exquisitely calm and beautifully restorative and pointedly observant about human nature and circles of life. From the moment we fade in and move slowly across that placid lake in that remote mountain valley toward the tiny Buddhist monastery floating on a raft, you’re no longer sitting in a movie theater but utterly enrapt, swept away to that place, the tinkling of the wind chimes in the breeze, the gentle rustling of the fresh spring leaves of the trees on the shores. And because this is a film with a power to seep into your soul like few others can, long after the credits roll and the lights come up and you’re back in the real world again, it may feel as if you’ve never left this place.
I’ve never been quite so haunted by the loveliness and the wisdom of a film as I have in the wake of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring. South Korean Kim Ki-duk — writer, director, and editor — has gifted us with a movie that it’s impossible not to fall in love with, gorgeously cinematic, told almost entirely visually, and splendidly so, reserving its few snippets of dialogue for nuggets of sagacity and insight that are devastating in their incisiveness.

It’s springtime as the gates of the little mountain lake open for the first time. They’re symbolic only, these gates — a child could easily walk around them — like the doors inside the floating monastery, freestanding in the middle of the one room, a reminder, perhaps, of the artificiality of the barriers between human beings. Old Monk (Oh Young-soo) lives here with his young apprentice (Kim Jong-ho), an idyllic existence, for the boy, of picking herbs for medicine and frolicking with the puppy. But an everyday adventure in the unthinking cruelty of children — especially of little boys — breaks the mood of tranquility Kim has used to ease us into this world, our first indication that this is not to be merely a pretty painting of a film. I was so profoundly affected by the lesson about pain and guilt and conscience that the old monk teaches his pupil in response to his cruelty — so touched by the hardness of it for the boy — that I fear to reveal more about it. It’s so simple and obvious in retrospect, a lesson most of us (hopefully) learned ourselves as children, but it’s a simplicity and obviousness so penetrating that it’s below the radar of the language of most films, so many of which are, of course, preoccupied with acts of unthinking cruelty that go unremarked upon. Spring, Summer… is a kind of Zen koan in its very attention to the purest and most elementary things, the good and the bad alike, that make us human.

When we fade in again, it’s summer, the lakeside lush and almost unbearably green. The apprentice monk is now a teenager, and if you’d guessed, from Kim’s lavish, loving attention to the elegance of nature (and from the title, too), that each section of the film would advance us a season along in the year, show us the lake and the monastery under autumn leaves and winter snows, then there’s an instinctive satisfaction in realizing that yes, you knew Kim would take us through the seasons of life as well, would follow the apprentice monk to see if that early lesson either blossomed or withered, and what further lessons would spring from it. Summer’s education is in the cruelty of desire, autumn’s about letting go of rage, and winter’s (in which Kim himself, with serene aplomb, plays the apprentice monk turned the master) about penance and finding peace.

And so spring comes around again, and the monk takes on a new child apprentice, and the cycle begins anew, as it must, as we knew it would in a way that has nothing to do with Zen-ness or religion, in the way of life that we all recognize. There’s a startling universality here, a relevance that knows no cultural or national or gender boundaries. This is, simply, an astonishing film.

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MPAA: rated R for some strong sexuality

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb
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