Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring Review

After the darkness of his earlier features 'The Isle' and 'Bad Guy', Kim Ki-Duk has changed direction with the gentle and contemplative 'Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring'. There are definite visual similarities with the former film, in that its characters live on an isolated lake, but unlike 'The Isle' there are, I'm happy to say, no horrible, pointless mutilations or pervading air of hopeless morbidity.

'Spring, Summer...' is a very simple film and as such it's hard to talk about without describing the plot. I've decided to outline roughly what happens throughout the entire film, to give a sense of its simplicity. This does mean however that much of what follows contains spoilers although please be aware this move is not 'The Usual Suspects' in the plot department. It's basically a Buddhist fable, charting one person's spiritual journey, loss of faith, atonement and eventual salvation.

In 'Spring', we meet the character whose life the film will follow as a very young boy, the apprentice of a kindly old Buddhist Master. The two live on a floating hermitage in the middle of a peaceful lake, itself situated in the heart of a beautiful forest. Life's pretty idyllic, consisting of lazing around, chasing butterflies and some occasional prayer. In a context this serene, small things have a greater impact. Sorting through some herbs the boy has picked one day, the Master picks one out: "Even though these herbs all look the same, this one can kill you," he says. When the Master later notices the boy cruelly tormenting some animals by attaching a stone to them by a piece of string, he does the same to him. "Go and untie them," he tells the boy, "and if any of them are dead, you will carry the stone in your heart for as long as you live."

In 'Summer' the apprentice, now a young man, meets a sickly young woman who comes to the Master for healing. Powerfully and helplessly attracted to her, the apprentice starts wobbling on his spiritual path, secretively groping her as she sleeps and generally acting the fool. "Why are you suddenly praying, when you have never done it before?" his Master asks suspiciously. Before long the two have become lovers and her malady has - miraculously - lifted. That's not the only change. "I'd go mad if I couldn't see you," the apprentice says, "I don't know why I feel like this." The two continue to meet surreptitiously until discovered by the Master, who notes the girl is no longer sick. "That was the best medicine for you!" he concludes, but asks her to leave, telling his apprentice, "Desire leads to attachment. Attachment leads to intention to kill." Unable to live without her, the apprentice leaves the monastery and follows her into the world.

In 'Autumn' the old Master, alone now on the lake, happens to read a newspaper article about his apprentice, now in his 30s, who has killed his wife and disappeared. Soon he turns up, full of rage and hate and with the bloody knife that he stabbed her to death with. When he tries to committ suicide, he earns a beating from Master. "You may have killed someone, but you cannot kill yourself so easily." The Master sets him carving a sutra on controlling one's mind into the monastery's wooden deck. When police turn up to arrest him, the Master's benign influence soon has them lending a hand with paint! However, when the time comes for him to go, the Master releases him and the three leave. Left alone again, the Master neatly folds his robe and slippers in front of the altar, builds a pyre on the rowboat and ends his life with calm, resolute dignity.

In 'Winter' the apprentice, now middle aged, returns to the lake, walking across the frozen lake that he rowed over as a child. Opening up the monastery for the first time in decades, he finds a snake curled on the pile of clothes his master left behind. Excavating his master's charred remains from the icy corpse of the boat he sets them in a place of honour on the altar and sets about a life of prayer, meditation and martial arts exercises. Soon a woman with a baby comes, her face invisible behind a purple shawl. She leaves the baby with the apprentice and attempts to escape but accidentally falls through the ice, drowning. The apprentice discovers her body, uncovers her face and whatever he sees there causes him to undertake an arduous journey of penitence, roping himself to a millstone, holding a statue of Kuan-Yin, the female Bodhisattva of Compassion, and struggling up the snow-covered mountainside.

'and... Spring' briefly shows us the apprentice, now a grey-haired elder, living at the hermitage with his own very young apprentice, who briefly torments a tortoise, a hint that the egoic seed of attachment and destruction which led him astray is alive and well in the next generation (several minutes of footage in which the boy puts stones into the mouths of a fish, a frog and a snake - making the circularity motif even more explicit - have been excised by the BBFC for this UK release). The little hermitage is now overlooked by the statue of Kuan-Yin, which the apprentice carried up there in atonement for his life of sin. The cycle of birth, life and death continues.

Special Features
The Making of is a rudimentary example of such, offering seventeen minutes of footage of sets being built and the film being shot, divided into the same seasonal chapter headings as the movie. There is no narrative voiceover at all, only whatever on-set dialogue happens to be exchanged. As a result, one doesn't really learn that much more about how the movie was made, except in the most incidental way.

The Director Interview provides a little more meat, although 'Interview' is a little overstating the case; Ki-Duk is perched a little awkwardly on a rock in front of the lake, it looks like it's shot in DV and the questions appear as white-on-black text before each segment. Ki-Duk explains that the ideas for 'Spring, Summer...' came to him after the premiere of 'The Isle' at the Sundance Festival. "I felt I needed to confess that I was an Asian director," he says.
The audio quality of this under-four minute section is poor and Tartan actually apologises for it beforehand, but more frustrating still is the elliptical nature of Ki-Duk's answers, although it's hard to tell if this is due to a clumsy translation or the nature of the man himself.

'Premiere Footage' is exactly that, showing the low-key premiere of the film in Korea, brief statements from the cast and a very short question and answer session with a panel. It has the nature of a prize giving in a small church hall, with everyone being very formal and confessing how nervous they are. Kim Ki-Duk talks for a bit, describing his search for the right location for the film and his attitude towards casting. Karl Baumgartner notes that his company Pandora was also involved in the production of 'Samsara', which had a very similar theme to 'Spring, Summer...' This lasts a litte over nine minutes.

The Original Theatrical Trailer and a Synopsis round out the Special Features. The Tartan version's extras are nearly identical to those of the Bitwin R3 (reviewed by Noel Megahey here ) although, crucially, they have English subtitles.

Tartan have given the movie an excellent anamorphic transfer, with the film's stunning location and naturally lit scenes appearing clear and pristine. I understand from people who should know that it's not as good as the Bitwin R3. The seasonal animated menu screens are a nice touch, and complete a careful, quality presentation of this film.

The film is largely without music, just as well since the sentimental synth pop soundtrack only serves to detract from the atmosphere. More constructive are the ambient sounds of nature. All are presented cleanly and well-spaced throughout the soundstage, in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (not present on the Bitwin R3), Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and DTS Digital Surround 5.1. The latter may seem a bit like overkill on a film as quiet and understated aurally as this, but I certainly appreciate the gesture.

As with the Turkish festival favourite 'Uzak' (hailed by The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw as perhaps the best movie ever made), I seem to have missed the boat again with 'Spring, Summer...', which attracted raves from virtually every UK paper that covered it. It also won several international awards including the Audience Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. While it boasts fine cinematography - shot over the course of a year at the man-made Jusan Pond in North Korea - and a beautifully enigmatic performance from Oh Young-Su as the elderly Master, I have to say that I didn't find the film as gripping and compelling as everyone else. It's certainly never less than sincere and conveys its simple message of sin and redemption clearly and eloquently, but I never felt the deeper currents of the subject matter were touched on, instead a heavy-handed symbolism is used (snakes!) that rather makes obvious that which should perhaps best be hinted at. Depicting the subtleties and contradictions of the spiritual experience on film is an extraordinarily challenging task and those films that have succeeded ('Andrei Rublev' and even 'The Thin Red Line') have done so by evoking, with great skill, some very delicate sensory qualities from a huge cinematic canvas. This is not to suggest for a moment that Ki-Duk is not totally involved in the material in a very personal way; the fact that he plays the older apprentice in the 'Winter' section himself offers endless room for speculation about the significance the character holds - a murderer seeking atonement - for the devoutly Catholic director. I honestly think it's a question of ability as a film-maker.

I do think the generally spiritually bankrupt nature of western europe does cause some critics to sometimes go all gooey at a hint of understated eastern mysticism or 'oriental' simplicity, and I'm going to foolishly stick my head on the block and say that that's why I think the film has received such acclaim. Fair play to Ki-Duk, though; with this as his sixth film in the three years since 'The Isle' in 2000, (including the gruelling 'Bad Guy'') and another two on the way, he's nothing if not a versatile and committed writer-director, and full marks to Tartan for providing a good R2 DVD, even if it's light on the features.

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