Film Review: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003)

Kim Ki-Duk’s work is highly acclaimed, not only in the Korean film industry but pretty much all over the world…

A still from the film

This film was difficult for me to watch because it was difficult to analyse in a critical way, without developing a judgemental standpoint. I’m not so sure about the reasons for this but my best chance at explaining this is because of the way the characters are constructed and developed. I’m not a film student so it was difficult to address some of the technical aspects I took notice of, with certainty.

After watching the film, my first thought was “why did they tell this story?” It’s not a story that hasn’t been told before. The basic premises like human nature, cycle of life and righteousness, are all things that have been written, talked, acted, sung, danced and discussed about. Did this story really need to be told? Doubtless, it has been told in a way that interests the public (excellent ratings wherever you look), but it seemed to me as if it was disguised to appear different from other tellings of the same story, by (mis/over)using the tapestry of traditional Korean Buddhism.

More than a couple of times in the film, the lonely hermitage on the lonely lake in a lonely valley is romanticized into a haven of righteousness, peace, serenity, “clean”-ness and “good”-ness (not just “goodness”). These characteristics of the location have been overused and overstressed to the extent that one finds themselves not being able to take it and assimilate it in a solemn and respectful way. There is next to no subtlety in the portrayal of the aura, if you will, of the hermitage- everything is stressed more than a little longer than necessary. There were so many explanatory dialogues and visuals which need not have been there and the presence of which actually started to become frustrating after a point. The phrase “self-explanatory” didn’t exactly occur to the makers. All the wildlife gravitating to the raft, the pond with fish, which must receive so much attention from the visitors’ characters, the 300 year old tree and it’s achingly forced “role”, the number of times a character climbs to a vantage point (it simply had to have a giant statue of the Buddha!) and surveys the pure and serene landscape- all of it screams “no better place for spiritual preaching to play out in live action, don’t you think?”

Another painfully conspicuous scenario with the same purpose was when the detectives come and start firing guns at a soda can (which conspicuously symbolises the “bad” and “impure” aura seeping in from the outside world with the detectives). This scene looked very forced, like the writers were trying very hard to prove the point, and this feeling came up in several other parts, too. This unnaturally conspicuous storytelling sets this film apart from Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010), in that this is simply not natural cause-and-effect and flowing like the other, rather it is forced cause-and-effect. I was reading up a little bit about the director, Kim Ki-Duk, and I found this in an article:

“Kim Ki-Duk… doesn’t make his message manifest. There is little or no dialogue, no explanations, no speeches with messages.”

While this is true, I feel like it has been compensated for with the use of unnecessary, over-explanatory visuals. However, minimal dialogue, minimal cast and the generally minimalist feel and appearance of the film is appreciated and pleasing to behold.

The film reminds one of another Korean film, Seopyeonje, in a few ways- one way being that it appeared that the director/writer was preaching the teachings of Buddhism through the elder monk(s). Similar to how Seopyeonje seemed to be glorifying patriarchy, this film seemed to me to be glorifying and romanticizing concepts like finding peace through suffering, repentance through suffering and even leaving the world through suffering. These are very specific ideals of a religion and not things that want romanticizing. The film seemed very preachy, in this aspect, and was almost like a crash course in the teachings of Buddhism. It was also done very overtly and obviously here, whereas the glorifying patriarchy angle was less noticeable in Seopyeonje (as I mentioned in my review of it, it could have passed off as the characters’ nature, for me at least).

One of the things I found pleasing was the location and shots. It was truly beautiful to look at and some of the shots were so aesthetically pleasing that it actually makes you feel good. The shots really brought out the airy beauty and serenity of the location and did make me imagine the plight and life of the monks, as I tried putting myself in a lonely location such as this. Another thing I found interesting was how the duration of the shots and cuts were used. It was very different from the other two films we’ve seen. Here, they shifted around randomly, went to different points around the lake and on the raft, randomly alternated between the interior of the room and the exterior and the lake. This was all done in a way which worked for the visually pleasing aesthetic seen in the film. There were a lot of opportunities with angles because of the location where it was filmed and the way the set was created. By “set” I am referring to the hermitage on the lake which was constructed for this film. It was a really clever set and not something I had seen before or expected to see- a monastic house on a raft floating in the middle of a lake. When we were first shown the house, I was actually a little surprised to see this sort of visual. I can’t quite put a finger on what it is about this but it was a clever move that I feel really made the film and gave it character. The opportunity with the angles and vantages was very useful and pleasing, too, because we see the lake and the house from different angles, some overhead and some at eye level, which makes the viewer paint a mental picture of the location and literally makes you familiar with the location.

Another thing that worked for me in the film was that it was very structured. It was really neat in this sense and each season was made like a short film, with its own dramatic arc. The seasons also echoed the phases in the younger monk’s life and the emotions and development that might occur in these phases. In some of these seasons, the tension was diffused in a more effective way while others were either abrupt, or didn’t have much of relative tension in the first place. An example would be “Winter”, where the tension or story didn’t exactly peak and climax at any point to get resolved thereafter. What was meant to be the resolution and reversal itself had more tension than what felt necessary. “Winter” was the only one where the story didn’t quite work out, it all seemed quite unnecessary and present only for the sake of symbolism, which I will comment on below. The cyclical structure reminded me again of Seopyeonje, except that here it was a more pronounced and apparent “constant, unending cycle of life” message.

The film can also be seen as a commentary on human nature. It seeks to make people think about what comes naturally to people and what doesn’t. It talks about how feelings of anger, attachment and lust come easily but detachment, peace and repentance does not, as per human nature. The film also talks about the fickle, impermanent nature of worldly existence, but this layer was not woven into the story well enough. The section of the story which relates what happened to the young monk after he embraced a worldly emotion and left the hermitage did not seem well written, but lazily written. When I think back on it, it seems like an interesting thought- that a young man who has seen and known nothing outside of this peaceful bubble of spirituality ventures out, lured by worldly feelings of emotion and attachment, and cannot handle what the world throws at him. It is an interesting thing to ponder over, but is it really worth making a film about, anymore? I also say “lazy” because of the fickle use of exposition and old, uninteresting cause-and-effect sequence- half the story was exposed as soon as the older monk talks about lust being motive for murder, and later when we learn that the reason the man killed his wife is because she cheated on him, it’s a very unimpressive thing for a viewer to hear.

Coming to the topic of symbolism: there was a large amount of this. Symbolism was generously sprinkled throughout the film, in its plot, screenplay, characters, shot taking and scenarios. A couple of instances- the detectives bringing worldly impurity into the lake and its vicinity, the “winter” scenes, where the younger monk, now old, relives this master’s experiences as a child and attains a higher learning and spirituality by carrying the statue and stone to the top of the mountain, the role of the women with the purple scarf, the doors which open at the start of each season and the older monk’s apparent telekinetic powers. A thought that occurred to me was that by placing Kim Ki-Duk himself in the role of the aged younger monk, there was another symbolism at play in showing Kim Ki-Duk’s higher learning and attainment of a higher power through spirituality, or maybe making this film. It was just a thought but I thought that I should share it here. Besides this, the other thing that bothered me slightly was the use of the painted doors which opened at the start of each season. It was a convenient way to start each season, but the fact that they swung open on their own seemed out-of-place in a film like this one, which is driven so much by the actions of the characters. It just didn’t visually fit into the language of the film.

One of the things which made me question the film and its story very critically was the role of the girl. In all synopses and summaries, I read that the young monk’s trajectory is altered when romance enters his life. The portrayal in the film, however, was not love or romance, but a purely sexual curiosity of the young monk. The way the woman has been portrayed, even, is only as a sexual tool that breaks the monk’s spiritual trajectory. From the moment she enters, she is seen in fitted clothing, body-accentuating clothes and dainty, feminine and sexual gestures and movements. The scene for their sexual rendezvous is set too conveniently- the mating snakes in the beginning of summer, the young monk helping her onto the boat, her mother leaving, the old monk happening to be a deep sleeper and, later, happening to understand that sometimes, sex is required to heal the soul. The fact that he then tells his disciple that lust is motive for murder, seems convenient, too, and feels like the filmmaker is preaching this as well, and even more so when it turns out to be exactly what happens later on in the film.

It is interesting to note that none of the characters where given a name. Alongside with the fact that there are few characters, this might have served to allow for them to pay better attention to all their roles and weave them together the best way possible. Nobody was left out; even the detectives were given attention and gained at least some empathy from the audience.

There were some parts also, where there was a density of “could it be or couldn’t it?” in the film, which gave it some angle of mystery, though it was unnecessary because it seemed like a half-baked side story. Here, I am referring to the role of the woman in the purple scarf.

I was told that this film was born of proper, film school-given education and effort, which might have been why the camera work, shots, sets and visual language and treatment were so strong. To sum up, I think the story was told with sublime visual beauty, but am not sure if it was the right story to tell.

I’m a Visual Artist and Designer, a Vegan and an Aviation geek, and this is my repository of creative, reflective, critical and academic writing.

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