Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is an astounding work of visual majesty, one that is structured like a religious allegory, but far less entrenched in the symbolic or willfully abstract, illustrating its lessons through images rather than wordy sermonizing.
Following the life of a Buddhist monk from childhood to middle age and demonstrating the passage of time through the changing of seasons, the film uses religion as its guiding spirit, but never as a rulebook, aligning itself to the whole of humanity instead of the whims of its narrative. This breadth of vision makes the film a truly personal journey, one that bonds the viewer to the characters through shared experience and empathy.
The first chapter, “Spring,” focuses on a child apprentice and his abbot, a pair that reside in a floating monastery, surrounded only by serene, blue water and dense forest. The monk instructs the boy in the art of holistic medicine and herb foraging, delighting in the life of quiet contemplation he shares with the excitable child, whom he regards as a son. Despite his innocence and best intentions, the boy occupies his spare time by tying stones to snakes and fish, giggling wildly as they struggle to free themselves from the restraint. Unbeknownst to him, his master has observed these transgressions from a distance and plans to teach him a valuable lesson.
Awakening the next morning, the novice finds a hefty piece of stone fastened to his back, knotted just out of his reach. He begs incessantly for its release, but the monk, disgruntled by the boy’s cruelty, orders him to lug the burdensome weight into the forest and liberate his helpless captives. If the creatures die, the monk warns, “You will carry the stone in your heart forever.” The boy heeds this ominous warning, wailing uncontrollably upon finding the serpent crushed under the burden of the stone, finally realizing the weight of his irresponsibility and indifference.
As Spring fades and “Summer” blossoms into full bloom, we are introduced to the boy as a teenager, now tall and studious, despite an adolescent awkwardness and lack of social skills. When a distraught mother brings her depressed daughter to the temple for spiritual treatment, the young man quickly develops a childish infatuation, sharing his first sexual experiences with the girl in the seclusion of the rock bed that surrounds his aquatic abode. The couple remains undetected during theses dalliances, only getting caught after they take out the monk’s rowboat by night and fall asleep in a state of post-coital bliss. The wise mage, in an act of retaliation, pulls the plug from the boat and lets the cold morning water wake the sleeping lovebirds.
“Lust awakens the desire to possess,” the Monk scowls, expressing the jealousy inherent in sins of the flesh, but his strong-willed student doesn’t heed the lesson and abandons the temple, chasing after his object of affection. The young man releases a cock into the woods upon his exit, symbolizing his venture into the “world of man.” Above him, the clouds cover the sun, only revealing the passage of time and nature’s indifference to the matters of the heart.
Nearly a decade passes before the monk gets to lay eyes on his pupil again, only discovering the boy’s whereabouts through a mugshot printed on a crumpled piece of wet newspaper. Regrettably, the young man has lost his way in the secular world, violently murdering his adulterous wife and fleeing police custody in a state of frenzied panic. The report disturbs the aging cenobite, but he sees it as a final opportunity to instill wisdom into the fallen apprentice, and he waits patiently for the return of his prodigal son.
“Sometimes we have to let go of the things we like,” the Monk explains upon the boy’s arrival, but hubris and rage cloud the fugitive’s judgment and he attempts ritual suicide when untended at the temple’s altar. Realizing the young man’s intentions, the monk flogs him mercilessly with a switch, ordering him to carve a prayer into the dock as a way to purge the hatred from his heart.
The repetition and solitude of the task bring a calm to the tempestuous nature of the apprentice and the monk willingly releases him into police custody after he completes every step of the healing process. In a sad moment of realization, our stoic voice of reason reflects on his own loneliness and replicates the boy’s death ritual, gluing bits of cloth over his eyes and mouth before immolating himself atop his drifting rowboat. Beyond the growing flames, we see yellow and amber leaves shuffle off tree branches, a sign that Nature remains unphased by the melodrama of human crises.
Returning to his nest in the dead of “Winter,” the reformed apprentice resurrects the temple from a state of stasis, refurbishing the grounds and actively pursuing inner peace through meditative exercise. Finding the shell of his master’s boat frozen into the ice, he removes the monk’s teeth from the wreckage and sculpts a Buddha into a frozen waterfall, depositing the teeth between the statue’s eyes as a symbol of respect and honor.
In one final act of reverence, the monk ties a weight to himself as he carries the Maitreya Buddha up a mountain, reenacting the first lesson from his childhood. As he prays at the mountaintop, he observes the valley and woods from above, humbling himself to the power that nature holds over him and permanently separating from the selfishness of ego.
The last chapter circles back to “Spring” and shows the new master taking on a child apprentice. Left alone to play on the dock of the temple, the young boy shamelessly pounds on the shell of a frightened turtle, unknowingly repeating the sins of his father. It’s an image that would be easy to misconstrue as negative, but writer-director Ki-duk Kim only values an honest interpretation of life, elucidated through the repetition of images, drawing parallels between our experience, that of our parents and the communal experience of mankind.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (Sony Pictures Classics, 2003)
Written and Directed by Ki-duk Kim
Photographed by Dong-hyeon Baek