In Korean director Kim Ki-Duk’s ravishing, contemplative Buddhist film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeowool geurigo bom), every shot is imbued with mysticism, history, and the wish for redemption. If the film may not reveal all the tenets of the religion’s philosophy, it provides a sensory experience of Buddhist principle and wisdom: to achieve a fully spiritual existence, one must follow a physical pathway. Only by undergoing everyday (and extraordinary) life experiences can the characters come to understand themselves and, in the process, their roles in the cycle of life, death, and enlightenment.
Now available on a bare-bones DVD, The film takes place in and around a tiny monastery that rests sleepily on a raft in the middle of a lake, ringed by verdant mountains (Jusan Pond in Juwangsan National Park, South Korea). There, an elderly monk (Oh Young-Soo) and his young protégé (Kim Jong-ho) spend their days cleaning the temple, praying, gathering herbs near the lake, and meditating. Every aspect of their lives is highly ritualized, as they have constructed their physical environment as a manifestation of the road to enlightenment.
Strange, standalone doors float in the water at the entrance to the lake and sides of a temple, marking necessary pauses between stages of worldly and religious understanding. (If only The Doors of Perception hadn’t already been taken by Aldous Huxley, it might be the film’s perfect alternate title.) These doors delineate passages between isolation and the real world, the physical and the spiritual, oneself and one’s surroundings. One of the most interesting uses of the doors is to mark the older and young monks’ bedrooms; they sleep in bedding on the ground on either side of the temple’s Buddha, separated only by door frames and doors.
To move from their personal rooms into the shared (and spiritual) space, they walk through the doors instead of around on any side. These doors, like those marking the edge of the lake, create a nonphysical barrier between the individual and the communal, the worldly and the hermetic. The monks fashion areas for consideration and pause, slowing the physical world in order to encourage contemplation of the spiritual world.
Yet the physical world is repeatedly crashing in. Ki-Duk portrays it not as corruptive, but as something beautiful and revelatory. In the film’s first segment, “Spring,” the young boy cruelly ties stones to a fish, a frog, and a snake, not realizing the pain his game causes. As punishment, his teacher straps a heavy stone to the boy’s back while he sleeps, demanding that he find each animal and release it. If any animal is dead, the boy will carry that death as a weight in his heart for the rest of his life. When the boy discovers the snake dead, in a pool of blood, his body-convulsing sobs reveal the first hints of a character far older and wiser than his few years. This is not just a child’s sorrow, but the beginnings of an existential pain and understanding that will prove both destructive and purifying.
In “Summer,” the boy is now in his late teens (Seo Jae-Kyung). A young woman (Ha Yeo-Jin) suffering from an unknown illness arrives at the temple to seek healing (the older monk states that her “soul is sick”), and a youthful attraction arises between her and the boy. “Summer”‘s graphic sex is neither pornographic nor romantic; instead, it is a matter-of-factly physical event, one that can invoke both pleasure and wisdom. Seeing it as an instructive experience, the older monk allows the flirtation to continue, but warns the young man that lust incites possession, which incites violence. At the end of the segment, the boy leaves the monastery to be with his lover, closing the lake’s doors behind him.
“Fall,” the most painful of the segments, shows the boy as a 30-year-old man (Kim Young- Min), returning to the monastery to escape his criminal acts in the outside world. As predicted, he has become corrupted; without guidance, without reminders to pause and analyze instead of just acting, he has become unsure of himself. To help him rediscover the dual nature of the world, his teacher has him carve sutras into the floor of the monastery (sutras he has written in calligraphy with the tail of his white cat). When two policemen come to arrest the young man, they are persuaded to let him finish his carving first. Even these men, so fully ingrained in the outside world that they grip their cell-phones like weapons, sense the inspirational, freeing effect of this exercise and the overwhelming serenity of the monastery. No one, it seems, not even these worldly men, is excluded from enlightenment. One must only be willing to accept the tools as they are offered.
In “Winter,” the young monk (now played by Kim Ki-Duk himself) returns to the monastery and undergoes a purifying physical transformation. By meditating shirtless in ice and snow, by carving an enormous ice Buddha in a frozen waterfall, by dragging a millstone all the way up a bramble-strewn hill, the monk gradually learns how such self-torment can be a tool for achieving a kind of personal awareness, a nirvana on earth. When a young woman brings a baby to the monastery for the monk to raise, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring likewise culminates in a remarkable moment of clarity.
Throughout, the monk’s mistakes are, like the doors, moments for reflection and pause. If these trials are necessary for learning, then the joy of redemption is achievable only through the pain of loss. Ki-Duk’s truly wise, eye-opening film plays out like a profoundly simple fable of the human condition. Few films achieve the transcendence of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, and few portray such a gemlike rendition of the life cycle.