Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring: Transcendent Vision

in 15th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Sheila Benson

There is a point in Kim Ki-duk’s transcendent vision of the passions and the cycle of life, in which a half-naked monk, in an act of contrition, drags a huge grey millstone across a frozen lake, through scrub bush and across nearly perpendicular mountains until he reaches their topmost peak. There, on the millstone, he sets the beatific stone goddess he has taken with him on this pilgrimage. Turning from her, the adult monk (played in this section by the director himself) looks down past the green rolling hills, to the tiny lake where his journey began — years as well as agonizing hours before.

For the audience, this simplest moment comes like a sharp intake of breath. At the film’s three-quarter mark, it’s our first chance to have any perspective but a close one on the little floating temple on Jusan Pond where all the action has been set — on this lake and among the forested paths and grey, rounded boulders at its edge.

With this one shot, we are able to see and feel how far this character has come, since his distance has been ours as well. The film uses the ebb and flow of the seasons to mark his tumultuous passage through life: in Spring he was a shaven-headed, playful baby monk, missing a front tooth, living and learning in this floating idyll under the unsuprised gaze of Old Monk (the thoughtful, powerful theatre veteran Young-soo Oh.)

In Summer he finds love, lust and heart-bursting loss and quits the scene, only to return in Fall, after a violent incident. In a sequence of extraordinary visual invention, The Old Monk, aging but with his full powers, guides him through this dark, destructive patch, and into another exile. Then, calmly, the Old Monk pushes off his floating home to his own fiery funeral rites.

When Winter freezes the lake, our monk returns, walking back across the ice in the fullness of adulthood, to the stillness, the solitude and the work toward enlightenment that will occupy him here for the rest of his life. And in a brief coda, as musical as it is cinematic, another, later Spring finds him as the guide of another baby monk whose arrival a previous Winter was a stroke of pure, painterly mystery.

Like his central character, Ki-duk achieves full maturity with “Spring, Summer,” after earlier films (“Bad Guy” in particular) saturated with violence. Here, moments of cruelty like the Little Monk’s gleeful fun, tethering a fish and a snake with a stone tied to a string, become lessons in the encompassing humanity which pervades the film. (Animals are an integral element in every segment, most startlingly a semi-cooperative white cat whose tail tip the Old Monk uses as his brush, to ink Buddist sutras on the wooden deck of the temple.)

Moments like these blow like a fresh wind through “Spring Summer,” which contained some of this festival’s richest and most unforgettable imagery. After the extraordinary winter sequence with a woman who has hooded her face to remain anonymous, looking like the purest Magritte, it’s no surprise to learn that Kim lived for years as a working painter. (The lilac of her head scarf may even go Magritte one better, in terms of pure visual delight.)

Not only does Ki-duk have a gorgeous eye, his sense of humor is intact, a nice — and a very Buddhist — quality when dealing with the film’s weighty matters. It is, some might mutter, an awfully male view of enlightenment when, in Spring, the film’s soul-sick young woman, brought to the temple by her devout mother, turns out to need only her first (presumably first) love affair with the virginal Young Monk to cure her malaise handily. Well, it’s funny how things just work out that way sometimes. And in terms of gifts, “Spring, Summer…” is crammed with such prodigious ones that a spot of mutual lust finally seems picayune to be fussing about.