Korean cinema’s original Angry Young Man, Kim Ki-duk, takes a big step forward with “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring,” a sublime, witty, gritty and transcendental movie reflecting one man’s life journey. Entirely set on a tree-lined lake where a tiny monastery floats on a raft, and expertly played by a chamber cast, pic reps a refreshing change for the helmer of such emotionally violent fare as “Address Unknown,” “Bad Guy” and “The Coast Guard.” Fests will lap this up, and specialized distribution looks equally promising, given the socko welcome by crix and public at its Locarno world preem.
Auds familiar with Kim’s previous eight features will spot elements in “Spring” that recall his other pics, especially “The Isle,” a perverse yarn also set on a scenic lake with a houseboat. Character quirks in “Spring” — and its sometimes rough humor — are also reminiscent of Kim’s other movies (as well as, fleetingly, of Japanese chamber dramas like “Woman of the Dunes” and “The Island”). What distinguishes “Spring” is that it doesn’t try to shock audiences just for effect, as well as the film’s nigh-perfect construction and balance (often weaknesses in Kim’s previous work).
Per title, the picture is divided into four captioned sections of between 20-30 minutes each, with a brief final seg. First episode, “Spring,” opens with a boy monk (Seo Jae-gyeong) fooling around by the lake, tying stones onto a snake, a fish and frog. The monastery’s only other occupant, an old monk (veteran legit actor Oh Yeong-su), warns the child that, if any of the creatures die, “you’ll carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life.”
In “Summer” — introduced, like all the segs, with a pair of creaky wooden doors opening onto the lake vista — the boy is now a young man (Kim Yeong-min), whose hormones are sent racing when a mother (Kim Jung-yeong) deposits her beautiful teen daughter (Ha Yeo-jin, good) at the monastery to cure some unspecified emotional sickness. After clandestine approaches by the young monk, the pair ends up going at it like rabbits, and when time comes for the girl to return home, the young man is heartbroken.
Pic starts to spring surprises with “Fall,” in which the central character is now an angry, disturbed adult (played by Kim Ki-duk himself), and “Winter,” strikingly set on the ice and snow-covered lake, in which the man atones for his past actions. Coda “And … Spring” starts the cycle again, with a child deposited at the monastery by an anonymous mother.
Pic’s major accomplishment is that it deals with abstract ideas, in what for most auds will be an exotic setting, without exoticizing its subject or setting, or boring the audience into a Zen-like stupor. Kim’s rough humor (and, in “Summer,” animal-like sexuality) acts as a counterweight to Baek Dong-hyeon’s magisterial lensing of mist, water, trees and hills. But even when the film gets into Buddhist ritual — carving a Chinese-character sutra as a penance, chanting mantras, lugging a millstone up a mountain — the actions are always clear in lay terms, and not used as a picturesque crutch for the movie.
Down to small details, such as using a different animal (dog, rooster, cat, snake) as visual decoration for each episode, the flavor of what Kim is trying to convey remains clear.
For a story that proceeds from Innocence, through Love and Evil, to Enlightenment and Rebirth, it could be argued the film lacks a subjective point of view. Still, the result is never less than engrossing viewing, with unexpected twists and 58-year-old Oh’s wry, observational perf as the veteran monk engaging throughout.
Tightly cut by Kim himself, pic hasn’t an ounce of spare flesh, and Bark Jee-woong’s sometimes unconventional, varied score (ethereal, perky, chant-like, choral) is a further fillip.
For the record, whole production was shot at Jusan Pond, an artificial lake created some 200 years ago in North Gyeongsang province. The authentic-looking, floating hermitage was built for the movie.