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.