Moviegoers familiar with Asian cinema will know Kim Ki-duk, if not by name, by reputation. His 2001 "Bad Guy" focused on a mute thug who forces a young college girl into prostitution and earned him the moniker "Bad Guy director." His 1999 movie, "The Isle," had already brought him international notoriety. Juxtaposing beautiful postcard scenes with sadomasochistic sexual situations, this movie shocked audiences at Sundance according to Roger Ebert who wrote, "This is the most gruesome and quease-inducing film you are likely to have seen."
But his current film, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring," is contemplative. Set on a isolated floating temple, an old monk raises a young monk. As a child, the young monk is cruel to animals and the old monk makes him understand the consequences of his acts. In the summer, the teenage monk follows his passions for a young woman and leaves the temple. The young monk returns in autumn, having killed his wife. The old monk asks him to carve a sutra into the floorboards of the temple as the police wait. In winter, the old monk is dead and young monk becomes the old monk and must care for another orphaned boy. This young boy takes pleasure in tormenting a turtle and the cycle starts again.
Kim discussed the controversial cruelty in his earlier films through an interpreter, saying, "Those kinds of cruel acts are metaphors meant to contrast my meaning and question of what is life. In terms of historical development of films it is necessary to have violence in films. In American films violence is too much like a mannerism.
"The biggest problem for Americans understanding Korean movies is Americans love action films. But all action films have the same plot. To save one person, 10 people can die. It's okay. To create one superhero, American films naturally accept the loss of lots of extra lives. For example, the movie 'Speed' with Keanu Reeves. He saves probably 10 people who were passengers on that bus. But the movie doesn't show how many people have accidents or are killed by this bus. I think Americans, if they understand the weakness of American films, those people can easily understand my films."
"Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring" is filled with Buddhist imagery and violence is only suggested. The floating temple seems like a lotus, rising above the muddy waters for a pure existence. Kim, who isn't Buddhist, lobbied Korean government for months to be allowed to build the temple on the almost 300-year-old man-made Jusan Pond. "I focused on the location because it is a very mysterious, very different, unique place. I felt inspired." He also liked "the movement, the flowing and always changing nature of water" that he had already experienced while filming "The Isle" on houseboats.