Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Perhaps nothing could be further from the swell of extras, computer-generated effects & dizzying pace of Harry Potter than Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, a (mostly) Korean film written & directed by, and starring, Ki-duk Kim, available now on DVD. The film is a fable of five seasons in the life of an infinitely small Buddhist hermitage, a one-room temple set atop a houseboat in an isolated mountain lake. There an older monk is raising a child to follow in his footsteps. In the first of the film’s five segments – each “season” framed by the mountainside’s foliage &, in winter, with snow & ice – he teaches the boy to discern safe medicinal herbs from deadly ones and, when the boy plays a cruel game with some of the neighborhood wildlife, teaches him what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such a prank. As the seasons progress we see the younger monk as a young man setting out into the world, then returning once at 30, then returning again much later to take over from the now deceased older monk, himself being left with a child to raise, and finally teaching some of the very same lessons. There is a lot more that goes on in these various stages than I’m conveying here – some of it violent & with some fairly graphic movie sex – but I don’t want to give away more details since this is a film all about the details.

There are eleven actors in this film only because four different ones play the younger monk at different stages in his life. Young-soo Oh plays the older monk with a stillness that is a keynote for this film. The remaining six work mostly in pairs, a woman who brings her daughter to the monk for a cure, two police detectives, and finally a woman who has come to abandon her infant son to the monk. But, save for the daughter, played by Yeo-jin Ha, and just briefly that second mother, this is a film almost entirely about the two monks, their interactions & their own inner lives. There are, toward the end, some scenes of contrition by the younger monk that will last longer with me than anything in any of the Harry Potter films.

There are long passages of this film that are entirely silent. Not one of the characters has a name. With just one exception (that may be deliberate), every actor deliberately underplays each scene. And every scene is within walking or rowing distance from the floating temple. Parts of this motion picture are utterly predictable – which itself is the point. When we see the younger monk, now aging, with his new toddler acolyte in the final scene, we feel certain that we can see just what their futures may hold, and the seriousness within the older monk lies in the fact that he understands this also now.

But parts of this motion picture are utterly unimaginable until you see them on screen. Ki-duk Kim spent some formative years studying in Paris & the image of the second mother in the winter passage draws upon a classic surrealist trope that is stunning to see fitting in “naturally” within the context of this fable on a remote mountain lake. It is, in fact, flat out breathtaking right at the moment when you imagine that all of the drama – the sturm und drang of the young monk’s life – are finally behind him.

This film makes a powerful device out of doors – inside the temple, there is a door between the monk’s sleeping quarters and the main area, but no wall. Similarly, there is a door to the mainland, but again no connecting wall. At first, this seems like a quirky little detail, but by the film’s end the acknowledgment of invisible limits seems like an objective correlative – can I use that term in this blog? – for the tale as a whole. Ki-duk Kim has woven together a masterful act of cinema.