On a small lake, encircled by steep wooded mountains, floats a one-room Buddhist monastery, accessible only by a rowboat. In it live an Old Monk (Oh Young-soo) and his disciple, Child Monk (Kim Jong-ho), a boy of perhaps 7 years. It is spring, and the lad explores his small world under the watchful eye of his elder. He learns to assist the master, to pick medicinal herbs on shore -- and on his own, he discovers it's fun to tie rocks to the lake's small creatures. In Kim Ki-duk's episodic film rooted in Buddhist philosophy, this darker side of human nature is never far off, but then neither is atonement or eventual enlightenment.
Ultimately, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring relates the spiritual journey of one man -- the Child Monk -- in this singular setting over five seasons, each linked to a stage of life. In the summer, the orderly world of the now teen-aged Boy Monk (Seo Jae-kyung) is upended by the arrival of a female visitor. Fall reveals the Young Adult Monk (Kim Young-Min) in deep crisis, and in winter, the Adult Monk (director Kim), now middle-aged, finds maturity.
Despite its unwieldy title, this is a graceful and precise film; each episode unfolds organically, and is articulated with visual motifs and tones that reflect both the seasons and life's passages: the lush heat of an adolescent's summer, the withering of fall with its impending chill, the icy stillness of winter's death, and then, the rebirth and promise of spring.
Kim Ki-duk, a South Korean filmmaker, is often cited as a "bad boy" for his autodidactic approach and uncompromisingly intense films. Certainly, Spring celebrates the gentle side of Buddhism, but Kim also establishes that enlightenment is often borne of pain, anger and even evil. The film feels so deceptively soothing and contemplative it's as if nothing is happening, yet it contains life-altering moments of sex, rage and heartbreak, and its scenes of cruelty, atonement and consequence -- albeit quiet and often breathtakingly beautiful -- are immediate and powerful.
With its restricted setting and its few characters, this could be a play, but Kim, who also wrote and edited the film, and cinematographer Baek Dong-hyun share a keen eye for visual composition and the transcendent quality of meditative cinema. Spring finds beauty in the smallest of details -- the lush brush-stroke a cat's tail dipped in ink creates, the determined thrust of a frog to which a rock has been tied, or the gradations of ice and snow across the lake's frozen surface. Actions such as the crossing of thresholds, the covering of the face or the carrying of stones are reprised for clarity and depth, but never overplayed.
Such a meticulously ordered and serene parable couldn't be further from our frantic, non-stop, all-action-all-the-time world -- in tone, setting and even cultural background -- yet Kim Ki-duk's film presents a beautifully rendered universal story that quite simply echoed in my head all day. In Korean with subtitles.