Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring

on April 02, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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The cycling of the seasons emblematizes the rhythms of life in this lyrical film set in a tiny Buddhist monastery, population: two. Their hut floats upon a raft in the middle of an isolated tree-lined lake in the basin of a valley ringed by majestic mountains, the snow-crusted peaks reflecting as if in a mirror. (The location, the stunning man-made Jusan Pond in Korea's North Kyungsang Province, required six months of negotiations with the country's Ministry of Environment.) For Old Monk and Young Monk, the very elements govern the direction of their lives.

Divided into five parts, named for the titular seasonal intervals, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring" opens when Young Monk is a small boy. In a childish prank, he ties small stones to a fish, a frog and a snake. Old Monk discovers his cruelty and exacts a punishment that fits the crime. In summer, the boy has grown into a young man, and a girl his age arrives seeking a cure to her illness. Adolescent love blooms, leading to lust, obsession and murder.

When the leaves turn crimson and gold, Young Monk is an adult who returns from the outside world tormented and suicidal. The Old Monk devises an arduous yet meaningful task by which he can work through his anger. And, when the snow falls, it is time for the Young Monk to take the place of the Old Monk, now with his own boy to tutor.

Ostensibly, and despite the Young Monk's obvious maturation, these events take place over the course of a single year. Because of this and the difficulty of placing the story in history--the monks wear traditional garb while the visiting girl and her mother don modern clothing--there's a timelessness to "Spring" that's enchanting. It's part of a larger magical realism mythos in which the Old Monk appears on shore, without the aid of a boat, without a drop of water moistening his tunic.

Like in writer/director Kim Ki-duk's previous work, such as "The Isle," there is little dialogue and little action here. Rather, elegiac even in name, it's a poem in images: the richly ornamented creaking doors on the banks of the lake that serve as an entrance of sorts to the monks' home; the bright blues, greens, oranges and purples of the carvings on the deck of the raft; the Young Monk performing martial arts on the frozen surface of the lake and against the spectacular backdrop of a thawing waterfall, the camera freeze-framing on his dramatic leaps into the air.

Yet the film is not without irreverence, characterized throughout by a gentle humor, the most delightful of which is when the Old Monk paints the deck of the raft with the tail of his increasingly surly cat. Starring Young-soo Oh, Jong-ho Kim, Jae-kyung Seo and Young-min Kim. Directed and written by Kim Ki-duk. Produced by Lee Sung-jae. A Sony Classics release. Drama. Korean-language; subtitled. Rated R for some strong sexuality. Running time: 103 min

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