Movie Reviews
10:16 am
Wed August 11, 2004

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

Filmmaking at its best.

I have to get off this "9/11" preoccupation--I'm seeing the event underlying too many films. Recently I saw the xenophobia in "Dogville" and "The Village"; now it occupies my imagination again in "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring," a lyrical Korean masterpiece about isolation, love, death, and renewal.

A young Buddhist is tutored by a master on a floating monastery, with only nature to provide food, medicine, and occasional boyhood mischief with fish, frogs, and snakes (Coleridge's Xanadu in "Kubla Khan" comes to mind). Writer/director Ki-Duk Kim unobtrusively frames his film in the seasons with their usual connotations. But as human drama would have it, even in this isolated mountain lake, the outsider changes things. A young girl coming to be cured brings a different kind of sickness to the compound: lust. Although the old monk warns the boy that lust "awakens the desire to possess, which ends in the intent to murder," he doesn't listen. He follows her to enter the "real world," for which he is unprepared.

As Nicole Kidman's character brought apocalypse to "Dogville," and need forced the residents of "The Village" to become the strangers in the outside world, in "Spring" the intruding and emigrating forces upset the balance of nature even if love/lust is in the design of things, as the master admits. The little boy's torturing small creatures foreshadows the violence to come, relentless as it seems even in the face of the master's power and the boy's innocence. The animal imagery is not always subtle, but it helps emphasize the elemental setting and implacable human nature ready to take the innocent into experience.

Dong-hyeon Baek's cinematography is so painterly and mystical that the film could stand alone on that merit. He uses long, wide shots to suggest the remote beauty, and then close ups to capture the intimacy the monks have achieved with nature. But human nature is a whole other matter, as uncontrollable as a storm and as prone to destructiveness as the snakes slithering in this paradise. That the characters have no names increases the allegorical implications.

Thus this floating palace might be Eden, and humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes in a "Paradise of Fools," as Milton might have described it. The master warned the boy about torturing the animals, "You will carry this stone in your heart for the rest of your life."

Then there is always spring to renew hope that wisdom has survived the seasons.

You won't forget the images or the lyrical evocation of humanity in its beauty and imperfection. "Spring" is filmmaking at its best.