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Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring
2003 - R - 103 Mins.
Director: Ki-duk Kim
Producer: Karl Baumgartner and Seung-jae Lee
Written By: Ki-duk Kim
Starring: Yeong-su Oh, Ki-duk Kim, Young-min Kim, Jae-kyeong Seo and Yeo-jin Ha
Review by: Bill King

I'm praying for a coat
After "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring" concluded, I walked out searching for words to describe the experience. A helpful guy walking behind me uttered "that was amazing, that was amazing." (To his wife, I assume.) That fits the bill perfectly. Ki-duk Kim's film, the first of his work that I've encountered, is a powerful and, yes, amazing piece of cinema. On a purely emotional level, this is one of the most powerful films I've seen.

Kim separates the film into five segments, with each one taking place in one of the title seasons at different stages of a monk's life. The monk, whom the film follows from childhood to his elder years, experiences events that challenge his existence, and each season represents the change in his moral fiber. Yeong-su Oh plays an old monk who has taken a young boy (probably his son, though the movie never makes that clear) under his wing. They live on a floating monastery in the middle of a lake in South Korea. Each day is a painstaking routine of chores, meditation and instruction.

Spring represents the beginning of new life. The adolescent monk (Jong-ho Kim), around 10 years old, studies under the older monk's tutelage. Some of the lessons he learns at this stage will dictate how he handles adversity when he grows up. The old monk puts the young boy through rigid routines to ensure his emotional development matures into that of a dedicated monk. Their isolation protects the boy from outside influences that could introduce unnecessary complications before he is ready to handle them.

Summer is often associated with love. The monk is a young man now (played by Jae-kyeong Seo). A girl (Yeo-jin Ha) and her mother (Jung-young Kim) arrive at the monastery because the girl is sick. The old monk takes her under his care to begin a treatment that involves medication and prayer. Her presence provides a challenge for the young monk, who must continue to focus under the guidance of the old monk, yet has difficulty doing so because of her beauty. It's uncertain whether this is the first female he's ever laid eyes on, but his lifelong dedication to an unbending lifestyle may give way to lustful desire.

Fall is the beginning of the end. The leaves change color and drift to the soil. Birds migrate to warmer climates. The adult monk (Young-min Kim) has faced tremendous adversity since that fateful Summer when he met the girl. Now his life is on a downward spiral, and only by finding solace in the old monk can he hope to regain what he lost. The old monk assigns a suitable form of therapy for his fallen apprentice. By staying focused on one and only one task can the monk purge his demons and rediscover the inner peace that he abandoned so long ago.

Winter is silence. The lake is frozen over and the floating monastery is stuck in place. The monk (Ki-duk Kim) has returned to his former temple. The low temperatures and winter landscape create a mood of sadness that permeates this segment of the movie. The last lesson he learned from the old monk years ago helped him maintain his sense of honor. The low points in his life were tough lessons, but just as enlightening as those provided by the old monk. When the snow melts and the temperatures rise, he can see more clearly the path he must climb to take his rightful place in the monastery, to pass on his knowledge and experiences to a new apprentice.

Spring comes again. The cycle starts over. I refrained from giving away specific details from the monk's life because the film resonates better by allowing it to reveal each segment without previous knowledge of what's to come. Where enjoyment of some films isn't hurt by brief plot descriptions, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring" doesn't have that luxury. I have explained how each season is a metaphor for that particular time in the monk's life, but that's as far as I go.

The photography is beautiful. Since the setting plays a big part of the story, Ki-duk Kim's camera captures as much of the environment as possible. As such, there are stunning views of the lake, the valley and the wildlife. The monks are at peace with their surroundings and they co-exist with serenity. full of beauty and emotional complexity, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring" is a masterful effort - a great film by any standard.
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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