Proof that movies don’t always have to be busy to entertain and enrich, this tale of life at a bucolic Korean monastery is at once profound and simple. The most action-packed it gets is when somebody rows a boat, and there’s precious little dialogue.
In five episodes that begin and end with the opening of ornate wooden doors, the film follows a Buddhist monk from his childhood to old age, through moments of childish cruelty, adolescent passion, a young man’s anger, an aging man’s strenuous quest for clarity and peace, and the renewal of the cycle as an infant initiate arrives.
When he is a boy (Kim Jong-Ho), the story’s monk torments the creatures who live in and around the lake in which his house is situated, tying rocks to a fish, a frog, and a snake to giggle at their burdens. His elder (Oh Young-Soo) ties a stone to his back while the child is sleeping and tells him that if any of the animals have died, “You will carry the stone in your heart.”
People come and go—a sick young woman arrives for a cure of herbal medicine and prayer, police detectives journey to the scene to investigate a crime—but the real story takes place in the monk’s soul, rendered visible in heart-stoppingly lovely images that border at times on the surreal, as when the elder monk transcribes the entire Prajnaparamita Sutra in ink with a cat’s tail. (Note: The cat is still attached and none too pleased.)
Later the lake freezes over, and the monk—by now an older man who has gone out into the world and made his mistakes—purifies himself with exhausting tasks, carving an icon out of the ice and climbing a mountain with a weight tied to his back. The soundtrack is mostly mute except for the sounds of his labors (though there is an intermittent orchestral score and several chants), and through the second half of the film, there’s little interaction among the characters at all, even when they share the screen.
If this sounds esoteric and high-minded, it isn’t. Spring is beautifully accessible as a children’s fable, dealing in universal concepts like growth and longing and loss and the appetites that govern each stage of life. Director Kim Ki-Duk (who also stars as the monk when grown) has a keen eye for composition; like the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, he sets up each shot so that it communicates a wealth of ideas to the viewer cinematically. He indulges in camera tricks from time to time—some point-of-view shots here, some fast motion and freeze-frames there—but the more lasting images are the simpler moments.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
Directed By Kim Ki-Duk
Starring Oh Young-Soo, Kim Ki-Duk, Kim Young-Min, Ha Yeo-Jin, Kim Jong-Ho
(Rated R, 103 min.)