It has been a bit of time since I watched a Korean film, let alone reviewed one within the context of the blog and I felt that an injustice since it is the country within which I place my primary focus academically, particularly in regards to the Korean New Cinema movement. With this in mind it was a high possibility that if I were to pick a film completely by chance that it would fall within the directorial scope of Kim Ki-duk, whose works are wide ranging and nearly all controversial. In fact, I have to my recollection reviewed at least four of his films on this blog already, which may well be the highest for anyone yet. I would be hesitant to call him the Takishi Miike of South Korea considering that it suggests a heightened state of shock value, but Ki-duk's films are certainly not for the easy going or those seeking a visually light film. Even in the case of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, one can realize that underneath the veneer of beautiful cinematography and a poetic reflection on the nature of adoration and sacrifice lays a highly graphic and terribly abrasive consideration of the nature of sexual awakening, violence against those things without power and the general issues of growing up and learning to navigate a curious and ever changing world. I would pair this particular film with Ki-duck's The Bow, although wherein that film the director seems terribly preoccupied with the idea of entrapment and its justifications in the name of "protection," Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is near wholly concerned with the ability of beings to move through the world with complete lack of hindrances. One can see the notion of burden throughout the film, but the metaphors are layered and near impossible to read as any singular statement. Furthermore, the episodic nature of this particular work, divided into seasons, as the title implies, help contest even the possibility of forming or obtaining burdens as something that is seen as fleeting and capable of appearing and reappearing at a moments notice. This film, like other Ki-duk works is not suggesting a single possible answer or degree of oppression, but is constantly aware that as things they are subject to repeated change, especially in their decidedly intangible nature.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring focuses on the "closed off" world of an aging monk and his student a very young boy. I put closed off in quotations because the world is entered through two doors via a point of view shot, yet nothing seems to be restricting this world aside from a doorway. Segmented as noted before the first section follows the young monk about the natural world of the expansive monastery, where he finds humor in tying rocks to various creatures and watching them struggle to move. Enraged by his behavior the elderly monk forces the young boy to carry a rock on his back while he goes about attempting to amend his wrongs. Some of the animals, however, have died as a result of his cruel experiment, leading to a deep sadness in the boy. The narrative then moves forward a few years and witnesses the arrival of a mother with her sick teenage daughter, roughly the same age as the boy who is now a teenager himself, despite the outset desire to heal the girl, the young man becomes infatuated with the woman and the two begin a sex heavy relationship, only to be discovered by the old monk who demands that she leave at once. Angry, the teenage boy follows behind and leaves the monk alone, thus leading to the next section of the film, where the young monk returns somewhat older, heartbroken and bitter for placing his faith in a woman who eventually cheated on him. Upon return, the old monk makes the man carve words into the dock of the pier of the monastery until his anger is minimized, during which cops appear to seize the man for what one can assume to be either assault or murder. This moves then into the next section of the film, where the previously young man returns to the monastery to take up residence, during which time he is visited by a veiled woman and her child, one can assume this to be his former lover, although it is never outright shown. During a night of panic, the woman runs outside onto a frozen lake only to slip into an exposed portion and die from drowning, leaving the man to take care of the child, which, of course, leads to the final section of the film, which depicts the former student now serving as an aged monk to a younger generation.
The cycles of this film are clear, what is less clear is the tangible, spatial elements of the film. One can easily argue that the film finds its grounding in a sort of chronological structure, which is partially true, however, given that the moments between each episode do not represent a flat out seasonal change, and appear to extend beyond simply a temporal space suggest something much grander at work, a notion only made all the more obtuse when one realizes that the actors playing the assumedly same parts change, therefore, adding a surreal and almost mythological element to the film. I would even make a case that Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is very much concerned with what occurs in the liminal spaces of not only the world of the narrative, but the relationship between viewers and the screen. It is no accident that the doors always open up into the world essentially telling those who are watching to engage with the work, or to step into its realm, for to not do so would be to disregard the intimate, yet always changing world of this secluded monastery. In fact, everything is always on the move, much like in his film The Isle, Ki-duk's world is placed on water, which can obviously be read as a variety of things, however, in the spiritual regard of this work, and the other previously mentioned Ki-duk works, it only seems to add to the lack of grounding as a suggestion that any plans or attempts to anchor down to a place are futile, and in the particular location likely to result in death. These "weights" which metaphorically appear in the form of the young boy tying rocks to animals, extend to the narrative, whether it be sexual desire, the dream of escapism or perhaps even notions of spiritual answers themselves. The climb up hill carrying the burden of a stone in the next to final act seems to best sum up the entire narrative, in that, climbing the hill is already problematic, but one must only carry the burdens that they have brought upon themselves, and nothing more, every individual is given a chance to chose their outcomes, even in the most seclusive of situations.
Key Scene: The rocks on the animals metaphor is so on the nose, but considering how inherently violent it is, I felt it to be an audacious and well-executed portion of the film.
This is another cheap Korean film that stands out as well-worth owning. Not only is it an exceptional Korean film, but it is also a great art house work on a global scale.