SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER... AND SPRING (2003)
Tranquil beauty combines with a lingering sense of doom in this stunning portrait of human nature and the consequences of our actions
Low-key but profound, almost entirely devoid of dialogue but bellowing loudly on the human state, Kim Ki-duk's magnum opus is a film as stunning as its Jusanji Pond location.
While a monastery with its master and child inhabitants fuel the story, the unique and isolated lives they lead sees them wrestle with life’s steep learning curve in a manner which could be any of us. They are surrounded only by nature, but could be a father and son in a Seoul flat and address the same issues.
The film is split into five chapters, the title seasons, jumping several years each time to tell the life stories of our central characters.
We start in Spring, as a child Buddhist apprentice is mentored by his master on a tiny floating monastery. A life of prayer and meditation is broken only by rowboat trips to the pond edge to forage in the surrounding forest.
When the apprentice is caught tormenting a series of animals by tying rocks to them, his master punishes the child likewise, attaching a boulder across his midriff while he sleeps. Charged with finding the animals and releasing them, the boy is told that to find any of them dead means he will "carry the stone in his heart forever”.
By the next season, Summer, we have propelled forwards to the apprentice as a teen. Two women visit the remote monastery, one staying behind in the hope of being healed of her illness. The young lady’s presence stirs some more primal urges in the teen monk, triggering a chain of events that are realised through similar time-jumps into Fall, Winter and eventually back to Spring again.
Even for a Kim Ki-duk film, where meaning is conveyed in looks and reactions rather than much dialogue, the verbiage is minimal, making monks an ideal vessel for one of Kim’s films.
Despite the unique setting of a young child and his master in a remote wilderness, the central character is on the same learning curve as anyone else – the harsh moral lessons of youth, the blooming sexuality of the teenage, the frustrations of adulthood (beyond what almost all of us reach, in this case), and the reflective twilight years.
The narrative of the film is about monks, but the life lessons and festering emotions are universally applicable to humans.
Kim Ki-duk has an unrivalled ability to take seemingly muted moments and pack them with the type of drama which sucks the oxygen from your lungs.
Rotating seasons punctuating our life cycle might tread the danger of being overly sentimental, but it never touches this territory, ensuring an ideal chalk talk of what it means to be alive.
It took six months of negotiations to convince the Ministry of Environment to allow the film to build the set on the Jusanji Pond in the North Gyeongsang Province. By the time filming was completed we are left with a film where the water of the pond are still, but the ripples of the characters’ actions makes waves around this picture-perfect setting for an utterly perfect film.