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

I was talking with my friend Garth last week, and he mentioned how often the marketing of foreign films misrepresents the actual movies. For example, he had gone to see a new Italian movie I'm Not Scared, expecting a psychological thriller. When he got something less thrilling and more political, he was slightly disappointed, even if he had to admit the movie itself was satisfying. This misrepresentation is particularly true when it comes to sex and romance. Any foreign movie with a hint of love and nudity will highlight those elements on the poster, even if they are grossly out of proportion to the actual movie.

I mention this because the poster and advertisements for the new Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring make it seem like a romance between two young lovers. Indeed, every publicity photo features the female "lead" prominently. One shot even shows the two snuggling under a blanket, apparently naked underneath. But if you go to this fine, rich, and gorgeous movie expecting a romantic drama, you will be sorely disappointed. The woman appears for about twenty minutes and has fewer than ten words of dialogue. The film is rather a meditation on nature, faith, and the cycle of life--and a welcome meditation it is.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is broken up into five segments, corresponding to the five seasons of the title. The movie doesn't progress through a year, but rather skips through the life of two Buddhist monks, stopping at key moments. The opening spring scene introduces the characters: a middle-aged monk who lives in isolation on a floating temple and a small boy whom he's training in the faith. This training is a balancing act between letting the boy explore the world and reproving the boy for his mistakes. In one great sequence, the boy has been "playing" with animals by tying them to stones and watching them struggle. The older monk, watching this from a distance, teaches his young student a lesson by strapping a rock to the boy's back and making him go out and free the animals. It's a fantastic object lesson in both "parenting" and religious faith.

The next segment, summer, introduces the aforementioned young lady. She's brought by her mother to the temple to regain her health. At first, the two monks (the boy is now a teenager) largely ignore the beautiful woman, but the younger one can't resist the charms of love. The older monk lets the relationship develop, though he does caution at one point, "Lust awakens the desire to possess."

Director Kim Ki-duk (The Isle) is better known in film festival circles for his provocative sexual material, so it's refreshing to see a film with so much patience and spirituality. True, there are a couple sex scenes, but they're neither outrageous nor exploitive. Instead, the focus is on the development, rejection, and redemption of the younger monk. As he becomes infatuated with the young woman, he loses both his focus and his faith.

The movie establishes the various relationships with simple but effective framing and editing devices. In the opening spring sequence, the film uses cross-cutting editing to show the similarities and differences between the boy and the older monk. Even within a shot, the movie will change the focus (depth of field) to move between the two monks, highlighting what they have in common. Later, when the plot shifts to the romance between the now-teenage monk and the young woman, Kim introduces brief but powerful point-of-view shots to enhance our understanding of their burgeoning relationship.

The cinematography in Spring, Summer... is literally worth the price of admission. The opening shot, as the doors open to reveal the temple floating serenely on the lake, sets the stage for what's to come. Kim and cinematographer Baek Dong-hyun take full advantage of their spectacular setting. Using long shots from across the lake or high on the hills, they capture the spectacular foliage and the reflections off the water. The scenes in the fall and winter segments are especially gorgeous. The red leaves of fall sparkle in reflection, and the frozen lake of winter creates images of startling purity. In one breathtaking shot, the adult monk carves a Buddha out of ice, puts a red cloth in its nose, and then places it in front of an icy waterfall. The contrast of white, gray, and red is exquisite. My favorite shots of all, though, are the nighttime sequences. The simple lights in and around the temple cast a mysterious, magnetic glow in the mist rolling across the water.

The cinematography is not just a parade of pretty pictures, however. The serenity of the long takes matches the lessons the Buddhist monk is attempting to teach his charge, and our appreciation of nature's majesty is revealed as an essential element of the Buddhist tradition. The movie becomes positively evangelistic in its penultimate segment, as the wayward monk returns to re-capture his faith. Played by the director himself, the monk embarks on a rigorous regimen of training, prayer, and testing. The final test involves strapping a stone to his back (reminiscent of the spring segment) and carrying a large statue of the Buddha up a high hill. Those more inclined to the Buddhist faith might find these scenes provocative and moving, but they felt long and unfortunately tedious to this reviewer. In his attempt to convert the audience, Kim pushes his narrative in a didactic direction.

Still, those scenes are the exception rather than the norm. Most of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is enriching and profound. Don't go expecting to see a dewy romance. Go expecting to be moved and awed. 

J. Robert Parks  5/2/2004


On a more personal note, I wanted to let you know that I will be hosting a screening of my favorite movie of last year, the documentary Stevie, and then moderating a Q&A with director Steve James (who also directed the classic documentary Hoop Dreams). The event will be held this Thursday, May 6. The movie will begin at 3 p.m., with the Q&A beginning around 5:30 p.m. It will be held at Columbia College, 624 S. Michigan, room 602, Chicago, IL. Admission is free, and I'd love to see you there.



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