The Four Seasons of Life Kim Ki-duk’s Buddhism 101

Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring is the official Korean entry for Best Foreign Language Film in next year’s Academy Awards. It’s already won prizes at the 2003 San Sebastián and Locarno International Film Festivals, but in America Mr. Kim is best known for the erotic absurdism of The Isle (1999). Since his 1996 debut, Crocodile , Mr. Kim has directed nine films, becoming a vital, if lesser-known, force in Asian cinema.

Spring , which the 43-year-old director also wrote and edited, probably represents the purest and most transcendent distillation of the Buddhist faith ever rendered on the screen. I say “probably” because I’ve seen not nearly enough Asian cinema to qualify as even an amateur authority. Still, it’s hard to imagine another film of comparable visual splendor and spiritual intensity in the service of Buddhist contemplation and the quest for existence in eternity.

As the film’s production notes tell us, the visual splendor of Spring begins with “the artificially constructed set of a small Buddhist monastery made to float atop Jusan Pond in North Kyungsang Province, Korea.” Created about 200 years ago, Jusan Pond is an artificial lake in which the surrounding mountains are reflected. The lake retains its mystical aura by the ancient trees that emerge from within the water. After six months of negotiations with the Ministry of Environment, Mr. Kim’s production company, LJ Film, was able to obtain permission to build the set.

The director’s statement regarding his latest work is short and somewhat misleadingly simplistic: “I intended to portray the joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure of our lives through four seasons and through the life of a monk who lives in a temple on Jusan Pond surrounded only by Nature.” To my strange European-American and Christian eyes, there is much, much more to this film than that.

The four seasons, for example, are spread over so many years that they gravitate from one generation to another with a grimly fatalistic circularity. One life ends and another begins, but the pond, the trees, the mountains remain seemingly ageless.

In the first spring sequence, we’re introduced to all the marvels of Spring ‘s mise en scène as the wooden doors of a gated threshold open across the water; a small monastery raft floats upon the placid surface of the mountain pond. The only inhabitants of the monastery are the Old Monk (Oh Young-soo), his little pupil, Child Monk (Kim Jong-ho), and their pet rooster. Old Monk watches silently as Child Monk, left to his own devices, displays a cruel streak by laughingly tying stones to a fish, a frog and a snake. Yes, a snake-not the evil serpent in the Bible, but simply one of nature’s creatures deserving of more consideration than the capricious Child Monk is inclined to give; he prefers instead to be amused by the desperate writhing of his victims as he tortures them.

I must confess that the visual conjunction of a young child and a snake gave me a start. Hollywood would play the encounter for danger and suspense. Indeed, Texas exhibitors refused to book Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948), from a short story by Graham Greene, because its child protagonist (played by Bobby Henrey) talked to a pet snake and even kissed it lovingly on occasion. For my part, I was so impressed with Child Monk’s hand-to-eye coordination in catching a fish in the water and tying a stone to it-I was an all-thumbs kid-that my moral outrage was put on hold. But the Old Monk is, of course, made of sterner stuff. Before lecturing his errant pupil, Old Monk waits till Child Monk is asleep to tie a large rock around his back. The next morning, when Child Monk complains about the burden on his back, Old Monk asks him how he thinks the fish, the frog and the snake felt. Trying to undo the harm he’s done, Child Monk rows across the pond in search of his victims. The frog is still alive as the little boy removes the stone, but the fish and the snake have died from their exertions, causing Child Monk to sob remorsefully. Adding to his grief is Old Monk’s warning that if any of the creatures die, “You’ll carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life.”

Summer in the monastery begins years later. Child Monk is now 17 years old and now known as Boy Monk (played by Seo Jae-kyung). One day, the young man encounters a visiting woman (Kim Jung-young) making a pilgrimage with her spiritually ill daughter (Ha Yeo-jin). Old Monk’s diagnosis is intuitive and instantaneous: “When she finds peace in her soul,” he reassures the mother, “her body will return to health.” What Old Monk does not anticipate is that Boy Monk becomes infatuated with the girl, and after a rough-and-tumble courtship with several maidenly rebuffs, the girl succumbs to Boy Monk’s desires and sex invades the monastery. But though the copulation is as visually explicit as today’s international ratings allow, the nature surrounding the young couple drains the spectacle of its erotic frissons . The two naked lovers are as much a part of the magical environment as the fish, the frog and the snake.

After the lovers are discovered by the Old Monk, the girl is declared cured and sent home. Heartbroken by her departure, Boy Monk follows her back to civilization. Later, Old Monk learns from an old newspaper used as fish wrapping that Boy Monk has murdered his former sweetheart and is wanted by the police.

The fall sequence begins with the return of Young Adult Monk (Kim Young-min)-now sporting a full head of hair-on the run from the police. When he attempts to atone for his guilt by inflicting violence on himself, Old Monk orders him instead to carve Prajnaparamita (Buddhist) sutras into the monastery’s deck in order to find peace in his heart. (The sutras reminded me very much of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and the tattoos that a Buddhist priest imprinted on the protagonist’s back to ward off ghosts and death. It’s one of the greatest of all films.)

When two detectives arrive at the monastery to arrest Young Adult Monk, Old Monk persuades them to wait until the fugitive has finished his laborious task. When he falls asleep from exhaustion on the deck, the two detectives join to finish his sutras for him, after which the three depart with Young Adult Monk in custody. During this fall of perpetual disenchantment, Old Monk prepares his own funeral pyre that he lights for his ritual self-immolation.

The winter sequence opens with shots of the frozen pond and abandoned monastery. The much older Adult Monk (played by director Kim Ki-duk) has returned seeking to complete the spiritual journey-cycle he began as a child monk so many years before. As if to complete his mission on Earth, a veiled woman arrives bearing an infant she entrusts to Adult Monk’s care. She later freezes to death when she falls into a break in the frozen pond. In remembrance of the Old Monk’s admonition of the stones in his heart, Adult Monk drags a millstone to the summit of a mountain overlooking the pond. As he gazes down on the pond and the monastery, he sees in his mind’s eye the cyclical pattern of his own life through all the eternally renewable seasons of his existence.

The … and Spring sequence begins in the sunlight with the metamorphosis of the Child Monk into his teacher, Old Monk, with the abandoned infant now growing under his tutelage as Young Monk. The cycle is complete.

Bertrand Russell, an irascible atheist and a wittily skeptical disbeliever of all religions, undertook to grade them all on moral perspicacity. As I recall, he ranked Buddhism above Christianity on the basis of some unkind exclusionary dogma (i.e., the church’s, not Christ’s). Indeed, if I were to be given the option of choosing my religion for myself (instead of staying with the one I inherited from my parents), and all I had to go on were two films, Mr. Kim’s Spring and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ , I might well opt for Buddhism, as some of my friends have done. Talk about exclusion! Mr. Gibson has consigned his own wife and the mother of his children to hell for not following the dictates of his own vestigial branch of Christianity.

But Mr. Gibson’s profitable histrionics aside, the choice for me is not that simple. There was a point in Mr. Kim’s film when I found the Buddhist sutra carvings inordinately tedious. Perhaps there is some part of me that does not want to be part of a cycle that embraces nothingness as spiritual rebirth in the universe of which I’m an integral part. I prefer to fight on-in the Alamo of my ego-even though I know I will eventually lose. The levels of acceptance and resignation that Buddhism demands are hopelessly above me. And I don’t want eroticism to be subsumed as part of nature. I want a life bold, defiant and earth-shaking. But Mr. Kim’s majestic narrative in the end does approach the sublime in its cumulative sense of sadness and renewal.