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Is there such a thing as a Buddhist film, and if there were, could you watch it without tumbling into a stupor? For all of cinema’s meditative potential in the right hands, it’s safe to say that having your eyeballs Rolfed and your attention targeted by movies is the antithesis of authentic transcendental experience—by the same token, enlightenment isn’t something you can photograph. This doesn’t stop Korean filmmakers from occasionally trying to express the struggle toward inner purity: Bae Yong-kyun’s Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989), for one, achieved a kind of soporific beauty. Kim Ki-duk, known here for the symbolic-fishhook stomach-flipper The Isle, grabs this ironic disconnect with both hands in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, and ends up with a meta-Buddhist fable, entirely concerned with the quotidian of work and human vice, and in total thrall to the philosophy’s poetic juxtapositions.
All the same, this utterly lovely film hard-sells an audiovisual ideal of meditational tranquility that could produce some converts as well as tourists to Kyungsang; the hackles of the devout might also stiffen once they learn that Kim invented most of the rituals and totems himself. (He was, he says, raised as a Christian.) Like The Isle, the film focuses entirely on a shelter floating on a lake—in this case, a hermitage on man-made Jusan Pond, surrounded by lush woodland. The shrine is inhabited by a wizened monk (Oh Young-soo) and his grade-school-age protégé (Kim Jong-ho); with each of the five seasonal chapters, anywhere between 10 to 15 years pass.
The arc belongs to the boy (embodied in the last, grown-up chapters by the director himself), for whom everything turns out to be a koan-esque metaphor for human folly and life’s resulting tribulations. After the tyke impishly tortures small forest creatures by tying stones to them, his mentor ties a rock to the boy’s torso, a physical trial that recurs and, as in Dogville‘s penultimate affront, suggests both self-destructive burden and entrapment. As the years pass, the ordeals escalate, but neither the old man nor the filmmaker passes judgment.
Buddhist slummery this might be—the characters obey decorative doorways, including an often flooded gate at the lake’s entrance, as if there were walls around them, another parallel to the von Trier film—but the brutal tension between spiritual righteousness and impulsive gratification is clear and affecting. Name a Christian film that does as much. (All right, Diary of a Country Priest and The Last Temptation of Christ. That’s about it.) Of course, Spring, Summer . . . is decadently gorgeous, and its cyclical construction is fearsomely neat. But Kim’s tone has an ancient simplicity, something like the fundamental eloquence of a silent film or an enduring children’s book. And his images have a surrealist integrity: the swimming frog dragging a stone, the monk painting sutras with a mewling cat’s tail, the prodigal monk chopping through a frozen waterfall, the Magritte-like woman masked by a scarf arriving to abandon a baby, that same infant crawling across the ice searching for his mother. Far from a maxim-expounding sermon, the film is a fresh spring of irrational visual pleasure.