The title of Kim Ki-Duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring denotes the passage of time not just in nature but in the lives of its two main characters, a wise old Buddhist monk (Oh Young-Soo) and his apprentice, played over the course of the film by three different actors. The two men reside in a small monastery situated atop a barge in the center of a placid lake somewhere in Korea, separated from shore by a free-standing gate consisting of two large doors decorated with ornate human figures. As each chapter of Kim's film begins, the doors swing open to frame the lake, the barge and the monastery—forever present, forever unchanging.
When we initially see them, in the first of the film's two "Spring" episodes, the old monk is already bony and gray, the boy (Kim Jong-Ho) a wide-eyed tot with clumsy motor skills and too-big ears. Day in, day out, they go about a regimen of prayers, the collecting of medicinal herbs and the like, while the boy learns how to tell a poisonous plant from a healing one, plus a thing or two about living harmoniously among all God's creatures. Mischievous as lads of so few years tend to be, the boy can hardly resist the temptation to tie small rocks to the bodies of a fish, a frog and a snake—tittering with glee as the animals try to escape their newfound fetters. He titters somewhat less when, the next morning, he wakes to find a much larger rock strapped to his own back, along with the old monk's prescient warning that to cause harm to an innocent creature is "to carry a stone in your heart for the rest of your life."
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Soon enough it will be summer, the master will be even grayer and more skeletal, and the boy will be a teenager (Kim Young-Min) on the brink of strange and terrifying teenage emotions. There will appear a girl (Ha Yeo-Jin) in need of the old monk's healing, and the apprentice will fall head over heels for her. He will even—despite being told that lust awakens the desire to possess and, in turn, the intent to kill—run away from the monastery to be with this girl, only to return (now an adult, played by the director himself) in the fall. Then come winter and spring again, until such time as the boy himself has grown wizened and old, and acquired an apprentice of his own.
If this risks making Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring sound like a high-toned bildungsroman, with an obvious tip of the hat (both in title and temperament) to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, that's because, to some extent, it is—a contemplation of the human experience, suffused with lushly exotic vistas and accessible life lessons. To be sure, the film unfolds at a deliberate pace, with a soundtrack occupied less by dialogue than by the sounds of water flowing and crickets chirping. And if you listen carefully enough, you might just hear the sound of one hand clapping.
Dime-store Buddhism aside, though, what gives Spring, Summer its kick is that, at the end of the day, the film is still recognizably the work of its perverse and prolific creator, whose best-known prior film, The Isle—one of 10 features released since 1996—employed a similar lakeside setting to chart the relationship between a suicidal fugitive and a mute but murderous woman. Here again—just beneath the movie's calm surface, churning like a vicious current—lies Kim's fearsome world of duplicitous femmes fatales and sudden eruptions of violence. Which makes for an odd and compelling tension, as though Spring, Summer were the work of both master and disciple, containing at once scenes of enormous beauty and warmth, crafted by Kim's inner octogenarian, and those darker passages sealed with the imprint of a still-restless iconoclast.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring was written and directed by Kim Ki-Duk; produced by Karl Baumgartner and Lee Seung-Jae; and stars Oh Young-Soo, Kim Ki-Duk, Kim Jong-Ho and Kim Young-Min. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.