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

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...and Spring is quite a change of pace for Kim Ki-duk, the Korean director of The Isle (2000) and Bad Guy (2001), the shocking violence of those films giving way to the story of the life of a Buddhist monk – a simple meditation on the harmony of man with nature and the eternally recurring circle of life.

An old Buddhist monk (Oh Yeong-su) and his young disciple (Oh Yeong-su) live in a small temple floating on a lake in a deep valley, far from civilisation. When the master sees the young boy, just a child, being cruel to animals, he teaches him a lesson about life and about atoning for mistakes. As a boy (Seo Jae-kyeong), the young monk falls for a young girl (Ha Yeo-jin) who has visited the temple to be cured of an unspecified illness and when she leaves the young monk follows, leaving the master alone. Years later the young man returns (Kim Young-min) having suffered and lost his way, filled with bitterness and rage at the world. The film examines the price he pays for the mistakes he makes for his life and the reconciliation and the retribution he makes for himself as an older man (played by the director himself, Kim Ki-duk).

As the film’s title suggests, the film charts the progress of a Buddhist disciple over the course of his life, the four seasons representing different stages in his life, with the "...and Spring", representing the eternal repetition of the cycle. In this respect, the film’s structure is the model of simplicity and the film itself, with minimal dialogue, is similarly clear and purposeful – each sequence and its import is clearly readable in the images and situations. The photography is simply ravishing, or rather it is the scenery that is the most notable aspect of the film, the photography itself is not the most imaginative or original, relying too often on stock shots of a misty lake, a tree and the floating monastery with leaves draped in the foreground to frame the image – but the film undeniably does look stunning through all the seasons depicted.

Much as I found the imagery a little stilted, so too I personally found the film itself a little too simplistic and obvious – the events play out with an almost predestined predictability. As a young child the monk is punished for his cruelty to animals by wearing a huge stone tied to his back, rather literally carrying the burden of his mistakes. This over-literalness can at times lead to some curious scenes – the old monk, alone on an isolated monastery in the middle of a lake manages to read a daily newspaper, or if not, he manages to randomly come across a particular headline at a fortuitous time. This kind of making-it-obvious-for-the-viewer can be annoying, especially as it is completely unnecessary – the subsequent events make abundantly clear what has happened, without the need for the newspaper. The characters never seem like real people (none of them even has a name), rather types symbolising human strengths and weaknesses and few of the situations have anything resembling realism, similarly being exaggerated archetypal or allegorical tales with a message. While archetypes can be used to powerful effect, as in F. W. Murnau's Sunrise, here the treatment is a little too solipsistic to have any real resonance or allow room for personal identification.

Nevertheless, the film is not meant to operate too strictly on a realistic level – there are numerous instances of Buddhist teachings and symbolism – a dog, a rooster, a cat, a snake and a turtle make appearances during significant scenes and much is made of the harmony of man and nature. But the film has wider interest than a study of Buddhist principles – the director himself is actually a devout Catholic and the two beliefs combine here, like in the director's subsequent film Samaria to a more universal, if not entirely successful, view of spirituality. On this simplistic level, Spring...'s allegorical, instructive message and beautiful imagery is quite appealing.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...and Spring is released on Korean Region 3 DVD by Bitwin. While the film is subtitled in English, the menu doesn’t have English titles, which is unusual for a Korean DVD. The Korean characters for the film’s title also serve as scene selection, each of the seasons in the title corresponding one of the only five chapter divisions on the DVD. One key press will take you to a background of the scene with music for that season, a further key press will take you directly to the scene. None of the extra features on the DVD contain English subtitles.

The quality of the print is fantastic – clear and sharp with stunning, if a little ‘cool’, colours – giving a good account of the luscious photography, but the DVD itself is poorly encoded, resulting in an image that is never quite stable with a constant, faintly perceptible flicker of macro blocking and compression artefacts. This is particularly noticeable in the movement of water, and there is a lot of photography of water here. There is the occasional dust spot and mark on the print and barely visible edge enhancement, but nothing too serious. Overall, it’s not perfect but, depending on your tolerance for shimmer, the picture quality is reasonably good.

You have the choice of Korean DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, both of which are fine making good use of surrounds to capture the ambience of the environment. Mostly there is nothing much more imaginative than the twitter of birds in the background, but there are some effective water directional effects.

English subtitles are provided and are fine, but with minimal dialogue you could easily dispense with them and not miss a single thing.

The Making of (17:07) features on set sound only, in Korean with no subtitles, but none are really required. The making of shows the construction of the temple and brief shots of the filming on each of the sections of the film. It is not really essential and doesn’t add to appreciation of the film in any way. There is however one cut scene shown being filmed where the woman with the scarf over her face at the end of the film is revealed. A Trailer (2:27) is shown letterboxed at 1.85:1 using completely inappropriate music. I have seen a much better international trailer, but it is not included on this DVD. The cast and crew briefly introduce themselves after a Press Conference (9:21) showing of the film and there are excerpts from a Q&A session with the Korean and German production team. A Photo Gallery shows 26 images from the film. The remainder of the extras, Production Notes, a scrolling Synopsis and Cast & Crew filmographies are in Korean text only.

There is no doubt that Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...and Spring is a beautiful film, beautiful in its simplicity and in its meaning, but its focusing on human archetypes and Buddhist teachings leave it curiously unengaging on an emotional level and much less adventurous in its imagery than Takeshi Kitano’s similarly themed seasonal journey through Dolls. Its accessibility however should ensure its success with European and American audiences.

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