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Saturday, July 18, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003)

Director: Kim Ki-duk
Starring: Oh Yeong-su, Kim Jong-ho, Seo Jae-kyeong, Kim Young-min, Kim Ki-Duk
Country: South Korea/Germany

Gentle though it may be, Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a film that leaves a major impression. It’s a visually and narratively exquisite film about the cycle of life of not just one individual, but of the transition from one generation into another into another. A magical film, both in terms of its magic realist leanings and its deep concern with the spiritual state of its characters, Spring, Summer... is an incredibly moving and engrossing movie that unfolds with such grace and such speed that it seems to be over almost as soon as it has begun. Its beauty is in the way that it remains with you afterwards, floating quietly in some corner of your memory and imagination just as the hermitage which acts as its setting floats in the middle of its lake. While “coming of age” stories are certainly no unique thing in film, Kim’s masterpiece is definitely a very special piece of work.

The story follows two characters, the younger of whom is an apprentice Buddhist monk (played, at various times, by Kim Jong-ho, Seo Jae-kyeong, Kim Young-min, and finally Kim Ki-duk himself), the elder his master (Oh Yeong-su). They live in a hermitage located in the middle of a lake, the younger learning the ways of Buddhism and also being taught life lessons by the older through the seasons of his life. A young boy in the chapter called “Spring,” the younger monk is a teenager in “Summer” who experiences a sexual awakening with the arrival of a teenage girl to the hermitage which leads to him abandoning his studies in order to go off with her. Years later in the passage called “Fall,” he returns as a bitter and angry man trying to evade justice for the crime of passion he has committed, and his master finds a way to soothe his soul before he’s taken away to face justice. By the time “Winter” begins, the master has long since died and the hermitage is abandoned and the apprentice returns to it to take his master’s place and restore the place to a state of spiritual fulfillment. He also gains the opportunity to teach an apprentice of his own, beginning the cycle of seasons anew.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring tells its story in a way that is deliberate and thoughtful, yet also feels like it is unfolding swiftly as a result of its construction as, essentially, five interconnected short films of approximately 20 minutes each. Each segment after the first builds on what came before, but at the same time each tells a story which can be considered self-contained and which could stand on its own, and each has its own particular strengths to make them all compelling in their own ways. Every season presents the young monk with a new learning experience, some of them fairly brutal, until he enters the final phase of his life scarred and heavy-hearted from his experiences, but also older, wiser, and finally at peace so that he can pass his wisdom onto another, whose life he will help shape with the lessons that he will impart. Though there are tragic events in the film, occurring both on-screen and referenced as events which occurred off-screen, Spring, Summer…’s aim is ultimately to uplift, showing that while individual people may be transient in the grand scheme of things, their values and ideas and traditions can carry on and be passed down to subsequent generations.

The film is strong on a purely narrative level, but Kim’s direction gives it that extra edge which elevates it to the realm of masterpiece. He makes the most of the natural beauty of the setting, which in its isolation and detachment from the modern world not only lends the setting an extra layer of spirituality, but also gives the story a sense that it could be happening at virtually any time. It isn’t until the arrival of the teenage girl in “Summer” that the film gives any indication that the story is taking place in the modern day rather than the distant past, the style of clothing worn by her and her mother filing in the temporal blank. The patience and subtlety with which Kim reveals that aspect of the setting is representative of the film as a whole. Kim is assured and confident enough as a storyteller to dole information out gradually and simply focus on the characters and allow them to reveal themselves in a way that feels uncontrived and authentic. This is a work by a filmmaker at the absolute top of his game.

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