Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (South Korea/Germany, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Spring Summer Fall Winter...and Spring is a gorgeous motion picture. Using perfectly composed shots to amplify an emotionally resonant story, the film successfully argues that "artistic" films do not have to be boring. Although few in the audience are likely to identify intimately with the characters (Buddhist monks who live in virtual isolation), the movie's themes about the mutability of life and the desire for peace and atonement have universal implications. One can be a New York City Stockbroker or a Salt Lake City teacher and still understand the points being made by Kim Ki-duk's film.

Spring Summer Fall Winter...and Spring uses the changing of seasons as a metaphor for life. It's not an original idea, but it is handled deftly. As the film opens, it is spring in South Korea, and the two inhabitants of a floating monastery (located in the middle of a lake) are going about their daily routine. They are a teacher (Oh Young-Soo) and his very young apprentice (Kim Jong-ho). The boy is not yet 10 years old, but he is learning the ways of Buddhism. And, during this segment, he learns an especially forceful lesson. Skip ahead ten years to summer. A sick girl (Ha Yeo-jin) has come to the monastery to heal. While there, she and the apprentice (now a teenager, played by Seo Jae-kyeong) fall in love. Lured from the calmness of his ascetic lifestyle by the promise of carnal pleasure, he abandons his master and accompanies the girl back to the "real world." His master's warning - that lust leads to possession, and possession to murder - is prophetic. Ten years later, in fall, the apprentice (Kim Young-min) returns to the monastery, this time as a fugitive from the law. Through his master, he learns the path to redemption - just as the police arrive to arrest him. Finally, a decade later in winter, the apprentice (Kim Ki-duk) returns for a final time, content now to accept the role of master (the old monk has died), make the monastery his home, and take on an apprentice of his own.

This is a rare motion picture that would be worth seeing for the cinematography alone. Kim Ki-duk and director of photography Baek Dong-hyeon have taken great pains to celebrate the beauty of their location (a national park in South Korea) as a recognition of the importance of the natural order is central to Buddhist philosophy. The film is not a philosophical or religious treatise, and, much as The Passion of the Christ does not demand that its viewers be believers, Spring Summer Fall Winter...and Spring works for those who are not adherents of the tenets of Buddhism. (Although I have no doubt that Buddhists, and Korean Buddhists in particular, will get the most out of the movie.)

The concept that existence is circular is much in evidence. The movie begins where it ends - with an aging man imparting wisdom to a young charge. We suspect that this has gone on for centuries and will continue to go on for centuries. The land around the monastery is untouched by time. The only clue that this is a contemporary story comes from the clothing and attitudes of the policemen who arrive in the third segment's autumn. The pace of Spring Summer Fall Winter...and Spring is deliberate, but there is too much richness in the movie's emotional tapestry for it to be considered dull or drawn-out. From a visual, thematic, and emotional standpoint, this represents rewarding cinema.

The film raises questions about how we live our lives and how actions, like ripples in the waters of time, can have unexpected consequences years later. By depicting the life of one unnamed individual in ten-year snapshots over the course of his development from boyhood to maturity, Kim provides us with insight and an uncommon perspective. Idealism is supplanted by a yearning for physical satisfaction. Romance turns to tragedy. Repentance leads to understanding. These things happen quickly on-screen, with the years elapsing in a heartbeat. We mourn for lost innocence and appreciate the accumulation of wisdom. By the end of the film, even though we do not know the main character's name, we feel that we have taken a long and rewarding journey at his side.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (South Korea/Germany, 2003)

Director: Kim Ki-duk
Cast: Oh Young-Soo, Kim Jong-ho, Seo Jae-kyeong, Kim Young-min, Kim Ki-duk, Ha Yeo-jin
Screenplay: Kim Ki-duk
Cinematography: Baek Dong-hyeon
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2004
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2004-04-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Korean
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1