The Five Seasons


Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, April 26, 2004


A popular favorite on the film festival circuit, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring" is a quiet, exquisite-looking South Korean movie about a modern Buddhist monk's surprisingly lurid life on his floating mini-monastery. It opens in Los Angeles and New York on April 2, and should eventually play in art houses nationwide.

Filmed at tree-rimmed Jusan Pond in mountainous Juwangsan National Park, the only sets are the hermitage-on-a-raft, an ornate gatehouse on the shore, and the rowboat that connects them. Most Buddhist monasteries in Korea are hidden away amidst picturesque crags because the Confucianism-espousing Choson dynasty that came to power six centuries ago drove organized Buddhism out of the cities and villages.

G.K. Chesterton pointed out in "Orthodoxy:" "No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple… The Buddhist saint [sculpture] has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive." Meditation, though, is notoriously uncinematic, so writer-director Ki-duk Kim injects a fair dose of worldly action.

He structured his film like Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." It begins in flowery spring with the protagonist a child monk bored by all the serenity. With boyish cruelty, he ties stones to a fish, a frog, and a snake. When he wakes up, he finds that his mentor, the old monk (who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Billy Crystal), has tied a heavy, lesson-teaching rock to him.

In the next segment, it's high summer at the two-man temple and the young monk is now 17. A woman drops off for some spiritual healing her ill daughter, who is pallid but still movie starlet beautiful. The lad has never laid eyes on a girl before, but he likes what he sees. His initial approaches are dorkiness personified, but eventually he gives her some of that old Marvin Gaye-style sexual healing, which puts the glow back in her cheeks after weeks of contemplating the universe had failed.

Finding them entwined in the rowboat, the old monk says that's only natural. Celibacy, not chastity, is what's important: the problem with lust, he explains, is that it awakens the desire to possess, which leads to … murder! (My wife whispered, "This whole monk thing is just a fear of commitment.") The young monk stubbornly rejects the wisdom of his teacher, and rows off to join his girlfriend in the outside world.

One colorful fall, thirteen and a quarter years later, he paddles back, a wanted man. Sure enough, he murdered his wife when she ran off with another man. The old monk paints 200 square feet of Prajnaparamita sutras on the raft's floor and sets him to work carving them out. Two armed detectives appear, but they let him toil in expiation all night, and then haul him off to the hoosegow. The old monk peacefully rows out into the lake, covers his face with paper, sets himself on fire, and turns into a snake. Don't ask me to explain.

In the single most beautiful portion of the film (and that's saying a lot), the now middle-aged man (played here by director Kim - in fact, three of the four actors are named "Kim") returns to the frozen lake and the abandoned monastery. While American jailbirds pump iron, Korean cons evidently master the martial arts, as our hero practices his impressive leaping kicks on the ice, shirtless. The contrast between this religion of tropical India and its Korean adherents, their very bodies molded by Ice Ages past, becomes almost palpable.

Then, a masked woman leaves him a baby boy, and the great cycle begins again.

"Spring, Summer ..." is certainly distinctive and memorable, although it is so symmetrical that some might find it a bit contrived. Others might find their minds wandering to less spiritual questions, such as: How do you get ashore during the shoulder seasons, when the ice is too thin for walking and too thick for rowing?

And what are the economics of the hermit business? Apparently, they're rather lucrative, as the late Nineties saw two major street melees in Korea between hundreds of steel pipe-swinging monks representing two factions battling for control of the wealthy monasteries. That would make an equally fascinating, but very different, movie.

Rated R for some strong sexuality.

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