The Korean feature Spring, Summer, Fall Winter… and Spring manages to slip into U.S. theaters posing as a politely spiritual portrait of one monk’s progress from boyhood to maturity, with pit stops at rebellious adolescence and contrite adulthood. This fair-enough description makes director Kim Ki-duk’s ninth feature sound like one of those pre-packaged allegories so beloved by viewers who value metaphor above concrete action.
But 40-year-old Kim, who began one film, The Coast Guard, with a man being shot to death as he climaxes inside his lover, is only appropriating a format, not embracing it. It is true that he affirms the “to everything there is a season” truth that is universally acknowledged by those the world over who don’t have to worry about where today’s food is going to come from. But he steadily adds hints of a harsher reality to the material that should prick at, rather than assuage, the soul.
The action’s opening spring section introduces the film’s two main characters, an Old Monk (Oh Young-soo) and his little charge and student (Kim Jong-ho). We also get our introduction to their spectacular, if snug, home, a floating temple anchored to the middle of an almost perfectly still lake nestled halfway up the mountainous walls of a small valley. The prettiness of the location is made more exotic by some of the man-made arrangements. There is, for example, a door separating the boy’s sleeping area from his mentor’s, but there are no walls between them. In other words, the two could pass freely from one space to another (you could even say it’s a single space), but choose to open and close, enter and exit, the door. Similarly, the tiny dock where the two tie up their rowboat for their frequent excursions on land, also has a (larger, more elaborate) doorway, which could easily be bypassed, but which never is, either by the monks or their infrequent visitors.
Kim almost immediately stains this perhaps superficial beauty with cruelty. During a romp on shore, the boy monk decides to torture various animals a fish, a frog, a snake by tying a rock around each and giggling as he watches them suffer. The elder monk chastises his charge in a manner sure to teach him a about the sanctity of life, but the not unexpected lesson makes less of an impact that the display of innocent cruelty. Clearly the happy child isn’t replicating any personal suffering on the animals. Rather Kim is insisting on an innate, almost idealized, cruelty that sits within the boy and, by implication, within us all.
This unity of innocence and cruelty is a hallmark of at least three other Kim films, including 2003’s The Coast Guard; his most lauded film to date, 1999’s The Isle; and his latest feature, Samaria, which had its international debut at the most recent Berlin International Film Festival.
The Coast Guard and The Isle are so similar that they almost count as variations upon a single theme. The Coast Guard’s shooting victim had, with his lover, deliberately skirted danger by sneaking onto a proscribed beach to make love. A nervous soldier, mistaking the physical exertions of lovemaking for the approach of North Korean infiltrators, had fired, shooting the man in the head. Naturally, the soldier, a sergeant admired by his men, is distraught. But his reaction is nothing compared to that of the young woman whose lover died while still inside her. She becomes mute and starts to haunt the sergeant’s footsteps. She also turns slatternly and promiscuous, lifting her increasingly dingy dress whenever she meets any of the local base’s patrols. The woman’s complete breakdown elicits a counter-reaction in the sergeant, who becomes bizarrely militant in his duties, to the point where he is thrown out of the army. Yet, just as the woman cannot cease her shoreline lovemaking, so the sergeant keeps returning to the base, acting as if he were still in charge of his platoon. Just as his men have taken advantage of the woman’s sexual breakdown, so they tend to obey their former sergeant, no matter how extravagant his orders.
Both Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring and The Coast Guard associate women with water. In the former’s Summer session, the old monk and his now 17-year-old novice (Seo Jae-kyung) are visited by a woman and her “spiritually ill” adolescent daughter. Not only do the women inevitably arrive by water, but the girl doesn’t speak and, when the teenaged monk falls for her, the pair have an encounter in the slightly bobbing rowboat. The monk warns the youth against love because it leads to a sense of possession and hence to murder. But youth will not be denied and the amorous couple eventually runs off. In the Fall section, the monk discovers that his prophecy has come true, and the now 20-something returnee (Kim Young-min) must perform elaborate spiritual and social repentance.
The Summer and Fall sections have a manifold precedent in The Isle. Once again, we have a floating habit on a lake, only this time its one of many floats anchored here and there on a lake. The floats have neat little shacks on them and are rented by fisherman for extended trips. One is leased by a fugitive who becomes the object of obsession by the mute (!) young woman who rents out the floats and services them with food and bait deliveries. She also ferries the prostitutes from a nearby town who make a nice living with married men out for a lark.
The Isle is Kim’s most emotionally riveting film, not just because the circumstances of flight and obsession are so riveting, but because he is so bold in his delivery. Here water is most obviously associated with women in general and sexuality in particular. Female muteness isn’t so much a detriment as the flip side of woman’s preference for action. Male conversation amounts to lying and little else, and when men do act, their actions tend towards uncontrolled self-destruction.
On the evidence of Spring, Summer, Kim seems to have mellowed over the intervening four years. Both the winter and spring sequences depict the possibility and then the realization of redemption. But one disturbing hint, provided by a provocative image of a woman (you’ll have to see the movie), also implies that just as spring comes again, so will summer and fall. Kim, it seems, is a believer in the Eternal Return.
Based on the admittedly small sample of four films, Samaria seems to mark a significant shift in Kim’s approach. Of the four films, his latest is the first to take a female point-of-view two, in fact, though a male character’s perspective ultimately supplants them.
Samaria does follow Spring, Summer in altering mood from sequence to sequence, though the alterations are far more violent. The dramatic action begins with two 14-year-old girls who have started a prostitution service. One handles the business end, while the other sleeps with men looking for school girls to have sex with; the teenager, who is already innocent-looking, wears her school uniform and girlish hair styles as part of her come-on.
But though they began their trade as a way to raise money for a trip, the motive has given way to one much more peculiar. The girl who performs the sex has become inspired by the story of an ancient courtesan whose spirituality was so profound that she forever changed her client’s lives for the better, simply by having intercourse with them. The girl decides she can have the same effect on modern-day Korean men, though her partner and friend looks askance on the whole idea. In fact, the friend has become so disgusted by the men who lust after schoolgirls, that she wants to bring the whole business to a halt.
Kim doesn’t break the pair down into a good girl-bad girl scheme. In fact, he plumbs each girl’s inherent combination of innocence and sexuality by showing them taking a couple of formal washings together, the two nude girls sponging each other in a bathhouse. The men are reduced to exploitative hypocrites until one of the girl’s father, a police detective, moves from the periphery of the action to its center.
Samaria is so bold that Kim is able to dispatch his previous imagery, though through the bath and a river, water does continue its association with women. Violence, though, becomes more pervasive, almost the mere presence of men being enough for it to flare up. It’s a stunning film, but given the off-chance (very off, considering the topic), that it might make it to a theater near you, we’ll leave off discussion here.
In the meantime, there’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring.