Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed May 12, 2004 12:40 pm 
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Puzzling poetry

[Published on CineScene]

A tiny temple floats rafted on a lake, surrounded by mountains and trees in a gorgeous nature preserve in Korea. A boy is in the care of an austere, calm religious man. The boy is playful and silly, but his play turns wicked. As he and the old man do their daily foraging on nearby land for food, the boy discovers a cruel game: he ties stones to a fish, a frog, and a snake to hamper their movements. The holy man crawls around watching him, saying nothing (the movie has almost no dialogue), instead tying a big stone to the boy's back while he’s sleeping. When the boy awakens he tells him: go and find the fish, frog, and snake and set them free, and if any of them have died you will carry that stone in your heart for the rest of your life. The fish and snake have died, and the boy weeps inconsolably. And that is the end of "Spring."

“Summer” comes and the boy has become a young man. He succumbs to lust when a beautiful young woman who is sick is brought to the temple to stay. The youth and the girl sneak off frequently to have sex, flopping like fish on the rocks. The priest knows what's going on, but says nothing, till it turns out the girl has been cured -- by the lovemaking, it seems -- and he says she must leave. He warns his disappointed pupil that lust leads to possessiveness and possessiveness to murder. An abrupt sequence: alternatives and subtleties are omitted. The youth’s response is to abandon his teacher, sneaking off in the night on the rowboat with a small – stone -- Buddha statue in a sack on his back.

In subsequent seasonal segments we learn that the young man has suffered dire consequences in the world. In the "Fall" segment he returns; is taken away and punished; and at the end, in the "Winter" segment, returns once again, this time seemingly purified and honed to physical perfection, and walks across the frozen lake, ready to replace the now dead priest and take on his own boy pupil, brought by a woman one can only describe as masked in shame. Spring comes again and the cycle starts over.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (does the title sound catchier in Korean?) has been greeted with such reverence there hasn't always been much analysis, and it’s full of puzzles and challenges. First of all, there is the eternal conflict over the relative validity of active and contemplative lives. The boy who’s taught not to be cruel to animals by the equally cruel method of having a stone tied to his own back, and who weeps so bitterly when he learns he’s caused the fish and snake to die, isn’t prepared by his life in the tiny temple to resist lust when the young woman comes to visit. He’s told by his holy teacher that lust leads through possessiveness to murder, and after he runs away he indeed murders his wife out of jealousy. Very nice no doubt for us to see this validation of the holy man’s causal sequence, but what good were the holy man's teachings or his methods for the boy turned into a man, if he returns to the lake filled with rage and pursued by police detectives? Could it be that the teacher can’t really teach; that the peaceful Buddhist retreat, which is all an invention by the Christian-trained (not Buddhist) Ki-duk Kim, is a nice place to get away to – perhaps one of the most gorgeous places ever filmed, the more so as seen gloriously transformed through the four seasons – but not a place where one can learn how to live in the world?

It is helpful to have been told since seeing the movie that in Buddhist tradition holy men know the moment of their deaths and that the priest’s self-immolation on the boat is therefore a logical and necessary ritual within such tradition. Also valuable to learn, post-viewing, that remains of holy men are deemed precious jewels: hence the acolyte’s carving out of the frozen boat where the old man has died and planting pieces in the Buddha he has carved in ice. But who can explain the woman without a face, her head swathed in a mauve cloth, bringing a weeping boy? Why does the priest write the sutra using the ink-dipped tail of a whining cat? Why does the priest, imitating his angry former pupil, paste papers over his eyes, nose, ears, and mouth with the word "shut" written on them at the moment he accepts death? Is this idiosyncratic avant-gardism or reference to another Buddhist concept?

No doubt the fact that the role of the grownup acolyte who once was the boy playing cruel games with small animals is taken by three different actors -- the last the martial-arts-skilled director Ki-duk Kim himself -- means that all these experiences are universal and have happened to many men. But this is a movie, and it would succeed better as a movie if its seasonal segments worked either as completely separate short stories or as a running story with well-established continuity. Let us also note that distracting visual beauty can be counterproductive in a movie that means to be intellectually stimulating. It’s no accident that more than one writer has called the effect of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring “hypnotic.” In a state of hypnosis we may learn nothing, or we may forget what we’ve learned.

To a non-Buddhist the movie indeed seems steeped in Buddhism. But like so many religious idylls, it preaches to the converted. There are those of us who will leave the theater entranced but unconvinced. And the persistent harshness and cruelty of this movie, so serene and lovely on the surface, will also leave a troubling impression. Ki-duk Kim shows a notable gift for combining dream-like fable with fabulous scenery, and he certainly coats his doctrinal pills – if that’s what they are – in lovely and memorable images. But however exquisite looking and provocative this movie is, it’s not for everyone. As the priest's unsuccess with his pupil suggests, religious teachings only bear fruit on fertile ground. One may walk out feeling it doesn’t all hang together or make enough sense without an exegesis, though sometimes it’s also too free with bald truisms.

Published on CineScene.

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