Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring Directed by Kim Ki-Duk

It would be so easy for Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring to pigeonhole itself into the tightly cramped corner that is Buddhist Cinema. The film is replete with all types of imagery that the average (or even above-average) westerner would find impossible to wrap their mind around. Thankfully, instead of creating a niche piece, Kim Ki-Duk made a film that is as universal as breathing.

First things first: in all aspects of the word, this film is beautiful. The cinematography, the directing, the script, the themes - all beautiful. The film is set entirely on a floating monastery in the midst of a small valley. The occupants - the two main characters - are an old monk and his young pupil. The film uses the season motif in the title as a tool of progression, with the length between seasons varying from circa 10 to 20 years. Mostly, the film is a coming-of-age story. We watch the young pupil age into an old man and, as he ages, gain wisdom through experience.

S.S.F.W...a.S. is a fable. Like all fables, it uses archetypes to convey life lessons. The floating island, the old monk, the young pupil - all of these might seem a scoche trite in any form outside of the fable. They work fine here because Ki-Duk never strays from them. The boy lives an idyllic life, collecting herbs, rowing around the lake, and gleaning life lessons from daily routines. A simple, yet profound, lesson is taught during the first Spring of the film. Quickly the boy learns about life, death, and the burden of guilt. It is an extremely basic set-piece, but overwhelmingly effective in conveying its meaning.

As Summer rolls around the boy is now a teenager. It is made clear that he has a better understanding now of his monastic life. He seems proper and perfect in his Buddhism - but he is still not free from the outside world. The monastery functions as a place of healing as well as den of worship and solitude. A sick young girl is brought to the old monk for healing. While she remains on the monastery, the pupil and her fall in love. She is healed (apparently because of the tryst) and the old monk tells her that it is time to leave. Unable to bear the burden of distance, the pupil leaves as well.

It is nigh impossible to watch this film without wanting to chop it into five segments for memory's sake. In segmenting it, it is also difficult to not compare and contrast the segments with/against themselves. If I were to do this, I would proclaim Fall to be the King of the Seasons. Now at the age of 30, the pupil returns to the floating island. Without giving too much away, something terrible has happened to (and because) of the pupil. The old monk knows of what the pupil has done and the frustration and pain inside his heart. Even though he is aware of what has happened, the old monk neither admonishes nor comforts his student. The pupil attempts suicide and the monk steps in to save him. The monk knows that the student cannot take his own life without first confronting what is inside of him and reconciling with himself. Fall ends with the most remarkable set piece of the whole movie. I cannot bring myself to ruin it for the unaware.

As Spring returns we are reminded of the cyclical nature of life. To put it in American terms - what goes around comes around. The pupil is now between the ages of 50 and 60 and the old monk has died. The former pupil, now master, has taken over the monastery. Kim Ki-Duk himself plays the monk at this stage in his life, adding a note of autobiography to the film. Further elucidating the bond between the old monk and the new, a baby boy is left to the monk for him to raise.

I call this film universal because the themes, even though they are shown in the context of Buddhism, apply equally to everyone. Everyone has some semblance of what it means to grow old and to, hopefully, grow wiser. With this two-shot portrait of life, Kim Ki-Duk has created a truly beautiful film.


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