In Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring, the seasons stand in for the phases of a life. Knowing that, and knowing that the film is about a Buddhist monk, you can probably imagine what the film is like. But you still have to experience it firsthand to appreciate it.
One Life to Live
R for Strong sexuality
Each season offers its own vignettes, conflicts, and lessons. The movie starts with our monk being raised by an older monk on an isolated houseboat in a sheltered valley. As a child, he is cruel to a fish, a frog, and a snake, as boys often are, and his master finds the perfect way to illustrate a lesson about cruelty and grief.
In later seasons, our monk encounters lust, marriage, anger, atonement, and compassion. The lessons he learns are all part of the Buddhist philosophy, beautifully illustrated on film.
The overarching story is simply about one life. It is universal, and it is therefore necessarily broad. Many of us will never experience murder, but that won’t make us any less whole than the monk, or make the simple story resonate any less.
Through the Screen
A pair of doors open on each season, framing the action about to unfold. These are doors without a wall, serving as a purely symbolic entrance to the monks’ lake, a visual invitation to pass through the screen and into the action.
As important as the cinematography is the inherent beauty of the valley and lake. Spring, Summer is a lush film and a rich visual experience. Soundtrack music plays occasionally, but it’s always welcome, never overbearing. It balances the long periods of silence as the few inhabitants of the houseboat meditate and communicate wordlessly.
More engaging than audiovisual experience is the joy of watching a good performance. Director Kim Ki-Duk plays the monk as an adult and is a wonderfully human actor. As a young man driven by hormones, he paddles donuts in the rowboat outside the house, spending his extra energy and showing off for a pretty girl. The performance is more obvious and less inspired when he returns in the autumn, but it still fits within the movie.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring is making the art-house rounds. It will probably never make it to the googleplexes, and perhaps that’s the next mystery for American Buddhists to contemplate, because it’s hard to imagine anyone who would not appreciate this simple, beautiful, human, universal film.