Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald: SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER … AND SPRING (Unrated) ***½
Transcendental, humorous, occasionally grim and above all wise film about the journey of life. An elderly monk teaches his young pupil some hard lessons in this intriguing reflection on the cyclic nature of life.
The South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk is known to many as a maker of violent films with a radical and often shocking view of Korean society. People who gave up watching The Isle, can however this time enter the cinema without fear to see Kim Ki-Duk’s serene and breathtaking meditation about the essence of life.
No one is immune for the power of the seasons and their yearly cycle of birth, growth and decay. Not even the old and the young monk who live as hermits in a floating monastery on a lake surrounded by mountains and trees. In the spring, the young monk in his cruel innocence binds stones on the backs of fishes, a frog and a snake. For punishment, he has to carry a stone on his own back as he looks in the stream for the frog and the fish he mistreated. When the boy is 17 (in the summer), a girl comes to the monastery.
The young monk soon experiences the meaning of love and obsession. In the third episode, autumn, the boy returns from the mountains as a 30 year old. The old monk finds him when he wants to commit suicide in front of the statue of the Buddha.
See also: A meditation on lessons of life (film review)
He makes him carve the Prajnaparamita Sutra in the wood to rediscover his tranquillity. As an adult man, the monk (now played by Kim Ki-duk himself) returns to the deserted monastery. A woman leaves her newly born son with him. In the last part of the film, it is against spring and we see an old monk and a child…
Nearly all of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring takes place aboard a floating monastery on a pond surrounded by picturesque trees and mountains. An oasis of serenity and beauty, the locale is far enough removed from civilization to feel like another planet — a perfect place for an old monk (Oh Young-soo) to raise his young disciple and educate him in the principles of Buddhism.
With the onset of each of the seasons, which leap ahead several years in the characters’ lives, the pupil learns a new lesson. In spring, while still a boy (Seo Jae-kyung), he discovers the price of casual, mischievous cruelty. In summer, now a teen (Kim Young-min), he experiences sexual longing when a young woman (Ha Yeo-jin) visits the temple for healing. The boy’s lust causes a rift between him and the monk that will take years to repair.
An entrancing cinematic poem, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring was written and directed by Kim Ki-duk, an accomplished South Korean filmmaker whose work remains largely unknown to American audiences (this is the first of his movies to receive wide distribution in the United States).
Kim, who also edited the film and appears as the adult pupil, leavens the movie with the tenets of Buddhist principles: Animals, meditation, man’s relationship to the natural world and spiritual penitence all factor strongly in the plot, which has the circular structure and resonant wisdom of an ancient fable. But this delicate, transporting movie, which keeps dialogue to a minimum to tell its story primarily through images, is also a triumph of sheer cinematic craft that mirrors its characters’ contemplative natures while extolling the virtues of lives simply led.
Cast: Oh Young-soo, Seo Jae-kyung, Kim Young-min, Kim Ki-duk, Ha Yeo-jin.
Writer-director: Kim Ki-duk.