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

A "Buddhist" film from Korean director Kim Ki-Duk that just kind of... exists.



Counter-programming became very trendy during this deeply partisan summer. As Fahrenheit 9/11 approached $100 million at the box office, Disney rushed into release America’s Heart and Soul, a documentary that suggested that salsa dancers and homemade cannons are what make America great.


On the religious front, South Park troublemakers Matt Stone and Trey Parker piggybacked on the success of The Passion of the Christ with their three-episode satirical DVD The Passion of the Jew. Stone and Parker's iconoclasm could also make their upcoming terrorism spoof Team America: World Police this fall's ultimate foray into counter-programming.


But for now, those who seek a religious film experience more contemplative than Gibson's Passion yet lack the patience to wait for another celebrity project (Richard Gere's The Nonpassion of the Buddha, perhaps?) will have to settle for Korean writer/director Kim Ki-Duk's episodic Buddhist tale Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring.


To anyone who watched Hero and wished that an entire film could be set on the beautiful lake where Jet Li and Tony Leung went skipping over the water, Kim's film might at first seem like an answer to their prayers. Each of its five episodes transpires at a floating pagoda surrounded by lush forests and crystalline pools. But there are no swords in evidence here, and alas, no walking on water for either religious or martial purposes.


Kim's story involves a nameless old monk and a nameless young boy. Through his own childish cruelty to animals and first acts of adolescent lust, the boy learns lessons about compassion and desire from the old man. Despite the hermit's advice, the boy insists on fulfilling his desires, and the fall and winter episodes show the consequences of that choice as the boy, now a man, returns from the outside world.


The film's natural beauty adds greatly to its meditative nature, yet also exacerbates its sometimes superficial quality. As Kim was raised a Christian, the Buddhist rituals of the film are practiced as he imagined them. Mixed with the postcard setting, the result is more than a little touristy, even though Kim clearly appreciates the tenets of Buddhism, particularly its emphasis on the cyclic nature of life.


Slow to begin with, the film's pacing really begins to drag in the Winter segment, in which Kim himself plays the now chastened man. Still, the accumulated impact of Kim's film is oddly affecting. Its enigmatic appeal is hardly worthy of a koan, but there's a riddle in there worth considering.


--Joshua Avram

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