Rarely has a movie this simple moved me this deeply. I feel as if I could review it in a paragraph, or discuss it for hours. The South Korean film ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring’ (2003) is Buddhist, but it is also universal. It takes place within and around a small house floating on a small raft on a small lake, and within that compass, it contains life, faith, growth, love, jealousy, hate, cruelty, mystery, redemption … and nature. Also a dog, a rooster, a cat, a bird, a snake, a turtle, a fish and a frog.
The one-room house serves the function of a hermitage, or a monk’s cell. As the film opens, it is occupied by a monk (Oh Young Soo) and a boy (Seo Jae Kyung), learning to be a monk. The monk rises, wakes the boy, bows and prays to a figure of the Buddha, and knocks on a hollow bowl that sends a comfortable resonance out into the forest. We gather that the daily routine rarely changes.
It is the same inside the house. The master and the boy sleep on pallets on either side of the room. At the foot of each sleeping area is a door. The area is otherwise open to the room, and always visible. But when the monk awakens the boy, he is careful to open the door and enter, instead of simply calling out to him or stepping around the door. Several people will occupy these sleeping spaces during the movie, and they will always treat the door as if it had a practical function … except sometimes.
Perhaps embedded cultural ideas make this idea persuasive to us. We have a conception, idealized and romanticized, of the ancient wisdom of the Orient. We accept the notion of a monk living in seclusion for decades — meditating in a mountain cave, for example. If a modern Westerner, an American or German lived in solitude on a raft in a lake with a small child whom he expected to continue there after his death, how would that seem to us? It would seem unwholesome. It would seem equally strange to Kim Ki Duk, its director, I suspect.
The film is by Kim Ki Duk, or in the Korean style, Ki-duk Kim, born in 1960. We see him briefly at the end, playing another monk who has come to the island. I first became aware of his work at Sundance 2000, where he showed “The Isle,” probably the most viscerally violent film I have ever seen. No, it doesn’t have explosions or shootings, but what it does with fish hooks is unspeakable.
Kim Ki Duk avoids one practice: In his films that I have seen (also including “Three-Iron,” 2004, not a golf picture), he doesn’t make his message manifest. There is little or no dialogue, no explanations, no speeches with messages. He descends upon lives that have long since taken their form. If conflict comes, his characters will in some way bring it upon themselves, or within themselves. That causes us to pay closer attention. How inferior a film like “Spring…” would be if it supplied a rival monk or visiting tourists or land developers. The protagonist in this film is life, and the antagonists are time and change. Nor is it that simple, because to be alive, you must come to terms with both of those opponents.
The writer is a film critic