Sometimes, this simplest story is the best. Not necessarily the most basic narrative or a completely linear plot. No, a simple story is a profound work, a tale that understands itself implicitly and never falters from that objective. Buried just beneath the surface can be dozens of interpretations, hundreds of meaningful symbols and a veritable treasure trove of imagination. But on no account does the tale require a man-made twist or a phony, forced subplot to work its wonders. Examples of this type of storyline are rare, and those in the position of presenting them would offer up the following explanation for the continuation towards convolution. Seems that, as any medium grows – from film to television to music – a greater level of complexity has been imposed upon it. Growth is measured in machinations, not meaning. Not that the audience for such strategies is actually making such demands. On a regular basis, ambitious presentations of questionable artistry are called "difficult" or "challenging" by critics, and rejected outright by the public, leaving artisans scratching their heads, and the moneymen worrying about the next offering up for grabs. What they all fail to see is that, when done right, something as simple as a love story or a family drama can come alive with the possibilities of pleasure. A perfect example of this theory is the 2003 foreign film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. As dazzling an exercise in effortlessness as you will see on DVD this year (it was recently released by Columbia Tri-Star), it is a film that offers the barest of story requirements – two men, a temple and the passage of time. But within the limitations of that structure comes one of the most amazing motion picture experiences in a long time. It is also proof that the best stories are the most minimal.
Told in five different vignettes, the fable of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is amazingly straightforward. In a magical setting in the middle of a deep valley somewhere in Asia (the film is Korean in origin), a wise old man and his student live on a floating temple in the middle of a lake. Praying, preparing medicines and gathering their daily needs, the duo serve a divine mission, offering solace and specialized treatment for ailments and disease. As our story begins, the Apprentice is a boy and the Master is both teacher and companion. We then begin to follow the seasons:
Spring – our young Apprentice begins to learn the ways of the temple, including prayer and the preparation of medicines. But when the Master witnesses the boy betraying nature, he must teach him a respect for all living creatures, including himself.
Summer – Years have passed. A mother and daughter arrive at the temple. The girl is very sick and her parent pleads with the old man to cure her. After determining that a treatment is possible, the young lady takes up residence with the men. Naturally, the now mature Apprentice is curious, both physically and sexually, about this new, nubile resident of the household.
Fall – More time has gone by. Reading in the newspaper that his Apprentice has gotten into trouble, the old man prepares for his return. When he does eventually arrive, it's under a cloud of suspicion. In order to teach him about respecting life and channeling anger, the Master devises several ordeals for his one-time student to perform...even as the police arrive.
Winter – During the bitter cold, the Apprentice, now an old man himself, returns to the temple. He decides to take up the labors and practices of his Master. But first, he must relearn mental and spiritual discipline and focus his devotion to the teachings of Buddha.
...and Spring – The cycle begins again, as a new Apprentice sits at the feet of the new Master.
As visually stunning as any film in recent memory and employing a narrative so basic that it blossoms with possible interpretations, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is a masterpiece to tone and storytelling. Using a mostly wordless script and a setting that evokes several planes of existence in one awe-inspiring vista, Korean writer/director Ki-Duk Kim has given the world one of the wisest, most satisfying films ever to consider the meaning and the circle of life. From the opening shot of ancient doors opening onto a literal paradise, to the carefully controlled compositions, this movie will fill your soul with more image inspiration than you feel you can humanly sustain. It's hard to say exactly what Ki-Duk Kim's intents are: he manipulates his story so that it never maintains the course you expect it to take. And yet after every plot turn, every narrative step, the saga never loses its organic flow. Like the epic poems of ancient Rome or the quiet parables at the cornerstone of all religions, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring uses the obvious and the purposefully obtuse to create a mystical and magical realm all its own.
On one hand, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is a meditation on destiny, of how the actions of youth always come back to reclaim their karmic place in adulthood. In the case of these characters, our young Apprentice is a mischievous child, even borderline cruel. Yet it is a sadism born out of isolation. Having been raised by the wise old monk since infancy, his total world of experience has been an incredibly gorgeous valley where very little of the real world seeps in. So the Master understands his actions. He does not accept them, but instead offers to illustrate them in a way that will have impact and meaning in the future. Similarly, when the older Apprentice falls hard for the invalid girl in the temple's care, the wise one let's matters take their course. When the infatuation grows intense, he claims it as the work of nature. When it grows fatal, it suddenly becomes the fault of man. All throughout Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, we see the clash of these cultures – both natural and manmade – and wonder at the wisdom in a tranquil lake or a lush forest glen. As the Apprentice, not yet in tune with the environment, traipses between the trees and across a stream, his disregard is a foreboding for his fate. And with each misstep he takes, the Master is there, like an overseeing spirit, to witness, worry and wait. At its core, this is a film about finding inner piece – and purpose, outside of the realm relegated to you by the restraints and roles of the world.
But because of its unique and ethereal approach, there could be much more to this narrative. Indeed, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is so deep that it occasionally feels bottomless, leaving you effortlessly freefalling (and associating) on its open interpretations. The laws of the physical world do not apply in this setting. The Master always seems to be present whenever the Apprentice is playing – without any means of traversing the lake that divides the temple from the land. The wise one has powers, the ability to control the flow of the tides and the stability of his sacred domain. And yet he is mostly ineffectual at controlling other, more important events around him. It would be easy to misinterpret him as God, or a god-like figure, but the comparisons are clear. If you consider the gorgeous lakeside setting for Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring as a visualization of the human soul, then the hands-off approach taken by the elderly monk makes perfect omnipresent sense. He is not so much a universal teacher as he is a setter of boundaries, a protector of morals. Whenever the Apprentice breaks one of the rules – either of the temple or nature – the Master steps in to offer guidance, punishment and forgiveness. If that's not god-like, then this movie is mixing its metaphors. The knowledge that the spirit will always return to the true course of its providence, in time, is at the center of this film. And director Ki-Duk Kim illustrates this magnificently.
Taking it back to basics, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring could also be seen as a visual illustration of the human maturation process: the pilgrims process from purity to corruption, and hopefully back again to a state of clarity. Each season would then represent a phase of man: Spring, the birth; Summer where all the planting and reaping occurs, both in the harvest and in the human heart; Fall, which by its very name insinuates a tumble from grace and into the hands of wickedness...perhaps even evil; and then there is Winter, the cold, barren setting of life in stasis and suspension. It is this most important of times when man has his most clear-cut option. He can die under the severity of the weather and the lack of basic needs, or he can forge ahead and reawaken his inner light. Once found, it can provide all the warmth and nourishment the frozen fields and ice-bound lakes cannot. Keeping his symbols restrained and his allegory pure, director Ki-Duk Kim manages to make even the simplest situation a test of personal resolve. The entrance to the lake is an ornate gate at the shoreline. Though there are many ways to and from the temple, the Master makes sure that all paths lead through that entrance – even as one can easily go around it and achieve the same goal. The same goes from the temple layout. There are two "rooms" on either side of the shrine, each holding a phantom opening with a door. The Master demands the Apprentice use said portal, even when there are no walls dividing the space. Such symbols of mental restraint and spatial interpretation are why Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is so special. It tells us more about what it means to be human than other films filled with mountains of monologues or myriads of messages.
There are also other readings as to what this movie stands for. It argues both for and against sex and abstinence. It makes the residents of the real world out to be buffoons or lapsed believers, trading on the temple and its devotion to discipline and prayer only when they need it. Several signs in the Chinese zodiac appear (at given times in the film, the Master and Apprentice have a pet dog, rooster, cat and snake) and the representation behind each entity adds another intentionally open element to the narrative. Equally evocative are moments where director Ki-Duk Kim permits the fantasy facets to completely take over, allowing the temple to drift across the lake or the landscape to sway and shift behind the characters' profile. Then there are the set pieces in the film, the moments where the movie surpasses standard storytelling to touch the realm of the resplendent. When the Apprentice returns after committing a horrible deed, the Master has him carve out several hundred calligraphy characters from the wood in the temples mooring. Then after exhaustion has overtaken the accused man, the wise one employs a couple of dozing policemen to help him mix pigments and paint the symbols. The entire ritual, from beginning to end, is one of the most spellbinding moments ever conceived for the cinema. But it's not the only one. When the older Apprentice returns to the temple, only to find it and the surroundings frozen in the most magnificent ice and snow scenarios captured on film, his purification exercises, set inside this winter wonderland, offer one incredible image after another.
But perhaps the single greatest sequence in the entire film comes toward the end. Seeking a way to rid himself, once and for all, of the guilt and torment haunting him from the past, the Apprentice grabs an icon from the temple, and with a large circular stone tied to his back, he begins a pilgrimage. To spoil where he ends up and what we see once he arrives would be to deprive you of the emotional climax to the scene. But as the older, wiser student makes his way across field and hill, finally traversing dangerous mountain-like terrain to achieve his aims, you feel every step, and experience the cathartic process of purification right along with the character. Director Ki-Duk Kim wants us to understand what the Master always believed – that nothing is achieved without sacrifice and the understanding of why said suffering is necessary. This self-examination process is at the heart of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring and provides a foundation for all the philosophy to come. This is definitely a film that will draw from you your own beliefs and ideals, allowing them to fill in the blanks that Ki-Duk Kim purposefully leaves vague. You may side with the Master. Or perhaps the Apprentice gains your sympathy with his natural curiosity (even if it is in direct contravention to the temple's teachings). Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring doesn't argue over what's right and what's wrong. It merely lays out the circumstances in bold, simplified strokes and asks you to draw your own conclusions.
Rarely do films allow the audience so much interaction with the story's subtleties. However, few films are so marvelously formed, expertly controlled and exceptionally cast as this one. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring boasts a bravura performance from Yeong-su Oh as the Master, offering both gravity and peacefulness in the same person. The Apprentice is played by several actors, each flawlessly capturing the necessary elements of the character within each season (Spring – wicked innocence, Summer – sexual confusion, Fall – a heart filled with anger, and Winter – a resolve for self-actualization). The director himself takes on the final incarnation, and he radiates a natural piety without it ever feeling self-righteous or forced. Indeed, every performance here is a masterwork of understatement, never once resorting to glorified histrionics – or non-stop verbal volleys, for that matter – to get their sanguine point across. Along with some of the best cinematography in an Asian film (several scenes look like museum landscapes come to life) and Ki-Duk Kim's dynamic visual palette, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring becomes something outside itself, a Tabula Rosa of possibilities just waiting for an audience to enjoy it. Serious, silly, sad, sentimental, suspenseful and somber to the point of producing spirituality, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is one of the best films of the year and a testament to the power of a story told simply. It should not be missed.
Here's hoping that, sometime in the future, a company like Criterion steps up and gives this amazing movie the technical polish it so greatly deserves. In the hands of Sony Pictures Classic and Columbia Tri-Star, however, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring has some serious issues. The first comes in the realm of the transfer. Though they provide an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen image, the encoding is slipshod, with several obvious instances of grain, and some minor compression pixels popping up here and there. For a movie that offers few added features, to treat the treasury of visual splendors that this film offers in such a manner is mind-boggling. They never destroy the depth of the imagery and only appear sporadically, but when a winter evening has more tech specks than snowflakes, something is not right.
The soundtrack to this film is magnificent, as elegant a work of ambiance wonder as the movie is a visual feast. Using traditional Asian music in combination with an ethereal new-age electronic soundtrack, the resulting combination crosses cultures and genres to open up as many aural horizons as actual landscapes shown onscreen. Especially powerful during the carving ritual and the pilgrimage, the Dolby Digital 5.1 will awaken your channels with immersive wonders. With easy to understand subtitles to translate the minimal Korean dialogue, the overall sonic circumstances of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring are amazing.
Again, the call out to Criterion is made: someone needs to give this film the contextual treatment it so richly deserves. A film like this cannot exist without some manner of explanation or exploration. Mandatory on the list of extras should have been a commentary, if not by director Ki-Duk Kim, then by a historian or scholar of Asian film and/or fables. It would have been nice to have a Behind the Scenes featurette showing where the film was made (apparently, it is a national park) and how the temple was outfitted for filming (was it a set, or an actual location? We never know). Most of all, this director has had a varied career behind the camera (he has made 10 films since 1996) and yet there is no biography explaining who he is or highlighting the other movies in his canon. Aside from a few trailers for other titles from Columbia Tri-Star (a couple are offered without an English translation, so beware), this is a bare bones abomination from a company that usually treats DVD with more respect. Why they chose Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring to turn skinflint is a real head scratcher.
Like being swept away on a warm tropical current and finding yourself lost among a verdant and vibrant setting, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring sooths your psyche and awakens your senses. It leaves a deep, lasting impression that will have you thinking on its themes for days afterward. It presents its pieces in an elegant, ephemeral way that begs more questions than it answers. But as an audience, we find ourselves not caring if we have to become involved. The story is so simple and yet so complex, mixing religion with reality, Buddhism with the basics of man to craft a heretofore unknown world of wonder and wisdom. Fans of stunning visuals and incredible musical backdrops will love this film for what it offers to the eyes and ears. But they – and anyone else, for that matter – will likely find their heart touched most of all. Sentimental without being weepy, harsh without resorting to outright cruelty, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is a minimalist masterpiece, a stunning cinematic statement to the ever-evolving state of man. Like the philosophy of the ages or the teachings of a wise old sage, there is a breadth of subjects contained in the film's narrow scope and the simplicity only heightens the insights. The best stories are indeed the most fundamental. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is as elemental as film gets. And it is all the better for it. In fact, it is one of the best.
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