Thursday, 3 October 2013

Good Movie: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Here's one you gotta see. No, I mean you gotta see it. Because I can't describe it. (Goes on to describe movie.)

Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring seems to end suddenly after half an hour, then you look at your watch and 103 minutes have gone by. Movie buffs consider this a mark of excellence. What then to say about a film that still does this to you the third time you see it?

The basic story turns on the relationship between a hermit monk (shout out to the Homeless Brothers!) and an orphan left in his charge. Together they care for a temple in the middle of a remote mountain lake that doesn’t quite seem to be in this dimension; the sun speeds up and slows down, the temple rooms have no walls, and the pier it's built on drifts – upwind – without actually moving. (Or is the world drifting past it?)

Like Heraclitus' river, Spring, Summer is so packed with encoded clues that it's a new movie each time you watch it. The temple pet alone is fascinating. First it's a dog, then a cock, then a cat, and finally a snake. Why does the teenager steal the rooster? Why does the old man replace it with a cat? Is it solely to set up one of the best enlightenment metaphors ever filmed? (Plus that cat is an awesome actor. Uncredited,
of course. The Man strikes again.) And what's up with that (apparently winterised) snake?

And the koans keep coming: stunning tai-chi performed on ice by a "broken" man; a boat anchor used as penitence, from a boat that's never anchored; humiliated people literally losing their faces. And just when you're sure the whole thing takes place in some kind of snow globe, two police detectives show up. Carrying guns. And cell phones.

Unlike other "weird" movies, this one is never pretentious. Instead, Kim invites us on an Easter egg hunt, with permission to find a few even he may have missed; he's sangha, not teacher. And the insight is conveyed virtually without dialogue. What lines there are, are pithy and important. Take the old man's entire summation of the futility of greed: "The things you like, others also like."

Kim, who also plays the old hermit's successor (or predecessor, or maybe the old monk himself), gets seamless performances from his
actors: Jong-ho Kim as the mischievous, engaging child; Jae-kyeong Seo as an earnest, intense teenager; Young-min Kim as a man on the horns of yearning; and especially Yeong-su Oh, as the old hermit. Even the cops, walk-ons meant to inject you and me into the temple's universe, are skilfully out of synch. All of it gives Spring, Summer a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel, imparting a realism to the surrealism that, well, you have to see to get.

As a dissertation on samsara, it all could have been dull as dukkha, but in the end it's a very Korean film, full of humanity and passion. Just watching the director pull it off is worth the price of admission.

Finally, please be advised that none of this is accurate. Like sitting itself, the Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring that can be named is not Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.

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