Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring
Add to this some of the most beautiful scenery
The film is painted on a canvas of luscious woodland greens and spellbinding acute-angled valleys. Most of the narrative takes place on a wooden hermitage floating atop a lake in a location brimming with rurality. This picturesque stage will steal your breath, with its still waters, rocky outcroppings and verdant flanks of foliage. It’s an amazing backdrop of tranquillity, and suits the story to perfection.
The life of a monk dwells at the crux of this film. The plot is subdivided into a quintet, each one following the flow of seasons laid out by the title. Each change of season is met with a progression in the temporal world, a jump forward, while at the same time showcasing the variance of each seasonal period.
Spring ignites proceedings as we are given the reins of apprehension and the plot is instilled. We meet an old monk living on the floating habitat, training up the mind of a youthful infant in the ways of Buddhist belief. It’s a life of meditation; one where desire is cast off into the flames of rejection, one where enlightenment jams with halcyon in the garage of peace. Our young apprentice has yet to achieve such high metaphysical triumphs, for he takes more pleasure in the torture of defenceless animals than the torture of material want. He scuttles and chuckles as he ties heavy rocks around the bodies of a fish, a frog and a snake, and observes as their movements are inhibited by this affliction, like Sisyphus condemned to life in a pond. This brattish behaviour is witnessed by the wise, old master, who sentences him to bear the burden of a large stone tied around his waist until he finds and emancipates those he harmed. An important lesson learned.
Summer has the youth become that bit less youthful, now standing as a young adult - at a guess, around twenty years of age. His world of simple calm becomes uprooted as his master and he welcomes into the lake-bound abode a young lady suffering some undeclared ailment. Of course, being the age that he is at, his hormones are rampaging over all the tenets of common sense, not to mention the doctrinal teachings of Buddhism. Eventually the throb of lust overwhelms him, and he and she partake in some naturalistic coitus out by a local waterfall. By the power of passion, this carnality and it’s subsequent repetitions, cure the comely female, and therefore she must go. This doesn’t provide good tidings to the infatuation of our protagonist, who, in a juvenile sulk, runs off with her, much to the chagrin of his master. A master, incidentally, with some of the best disdainful looks this side of Willem Dafoe.
Fall - a term vastly superior term to Autumn - opens with the master playing with some artistic expression or other, when he notices on a slice of newspaper the news of some thirty-year-old killing his wife and disappearing. It takes little intuition to know that this murderer is the protégé, gone stray into the abyss of ownership, and jealousy, and all the various diseases of the intellect us constituents of modern civilisation are used to.
He eventually shows up at his spiritual home, sporting silly overgrown hair and trendy goatee. Here he mopes and pouts, resentment perspiring from corrupted pores. But, tired of his immature demeanour, he is bestowed a purification chore by the master - a task of cutting out Korean characters from the wooden deck using the small knife he utilised in his homicide. During this, a duo of law enforcement arrives to carry him off, their mobile phones and barbarous guns contrasting greatly with the peaceful nature of this isolated life. Expressing a niceness short of the preconceived savagery, they allow for the cleansing and purging to be completed before shipping him off to some penitentiary far away. The section ends with the dying master self-immolating on a boat in the middle of the lake to the tones of sorrow and melancholy.
Against the icy breezes of winter, a now-older and more relaxed monk - transmogrified into master by default - arrives back at the lake. A body of water frozen over by the glacial frenzies of the season, providing some of the most spectacular visual pleasures for the eye in the entire film. After a short while pickaxing parts of the frosted landscape, a mysterious lady arrives with her baby. Obviously tormented in some way, she keeps her entire head covered with a sheath without abate.
Following a hasty and unpremeditated exit, she falls into a night-concealed porthole in the ice, leaving her child to the auspices of the monk.
Spring - the second spring that is, the full circle conformed - is a reflection of the beginning segment, with the monk now confident master, and the infant his spiritual protégé. We are shown the child messing, with youthful viciousness, with a small turtle that happens to traverse the deck of the domicile.
And so the serpent of Ouroboros is appeased, cyclicity instated into a poetic visual display. The tide of seasons reflecting the similar stirs and shifts of human existence itself. And therein lies the inherent beauty of the film, a self-contained microcosm, and an end that is as much a beginning as it’s definition regales us. The cinematography and soundtrack only lend themselves as positives in the creation of this brilliant piece of cinema.
The location is similar to the lakeside expanses of The Isle, but Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring has all the restraint and beatification that it lacks. The pacing and amount of dialogue may be similar to 3-Iron, but this is infinitely more captivating. Ki-duk Kim has produced a masterpiece with this film, which is both contemplative and blissful, and takes the idea of film as a pure art form that bit closer to perfection.