SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER... AND SPRING written and directed by Kim Ki-duk, produced by Lee Seung-jae and Karl Baumgartner, with Oh Yeong-su, Kim Ki-duk, Kim Young-min, Seo Jae-kyeong and Ha Yeo-jin. 103 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (May 7). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 88. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Kim Ki-duk is one of the world's most infuriating directors, but he's finally made his masterpiece, or at least his first. A former soldier whose flagrantly romantic resumé includes selling paintings on the streets of Paris, Kim is South Korea's most aggressive filmmaker. He subjects women to onscreen abuse that surpasses Lars von Trier's. And since he works fast, films like Bad Guy or The Isle can come off as staggeringly misguided spurts of sadism. The fish hook scene in The Isle famously divided festival audiences between true cineastes and people you could safely trust with children.
Many moments in Kim's films come off as ludicrous, yet his body of work is thrilling. He's the one Korean filmmaker sure to build a long international career. If there is a Fassbinder in the Hermit Kingdom, Kim is it.
Although Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring is actually his second most recent film - predating Samaritan Girl, for which he won best director at Berlin this winter - it's his most mature. Shot on a mountain lake of breathtaking beauty, it's the story of a rigorous Buddhist monk training a boy from infancy through manhood in the discipline of his faith.
But the boy is a typical Kim character, impulsive and cruel almost by reflex. As a child, he yokes rocks around a frog, a snake and a fish, giggling as they struggle. The monk subjects him to the same treatment as a lesson in compassion. It doesn't immediately take.
Each episode of the film takes place in one season. In Summer, the boy has grown into a raging adolescent, forced to help look after a sick girl who comes to the monastery with her mother. Her very presence draws the blood up in him, so he spirits her away in a rowboat and fucks her senseless on a sun-bleached rock formation. This, too, is signature Kim.
The old monk, who talks like he's seen one or two Kim films, simply says, "Lust awakens the desire to possess, and also the intent to murder."
Though it starts out as a spiritual pastoral, connected in tone to Bae Yong-kyun's classic Korean film Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For The East?, the film becomes more and more Kim's as it goes.
A floating monastery he had built on the lake at first seems to represent a timeless merging with the rhythms of nature. But as the young monk-in-training grows into an increasingly dangerous man, it becomes a house adrift, home to more and more intrusions of basic human impulse.
So, too, the mysterious doors-without-walls that stand within the floating monastery and at the head of the lake. They're like visual Zen koans, but they also, in a strange confluence, connect this film to von Trier's abstract set for Dogville.
What makes this film Kim's masterpiece is the grace with which he handles his favourite themes. He wrote, directed and edited the film, and disciplines his talent in a new way here.
The winter sequence is especially stunning, and it comes at a point where both the young monk and the film have developed a spiritual maturity beyond anything Kim has done up to now.
The music is slightly more present than it needs to be, but apart from that, each moment here is crafted with passion, formal skill and insight into what it means to be a striving human being.
One of the year's best so far.