Written, Directed and Edited by KIM Ki-duk
The film was Korea’s entry for the 2004 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The title reveals that the film is going to be about the cyclical nature of life and of man. The setting is a monastery that floats on a lake surrounded by mountains and the events take place over the course of about 50 years. The story is broken into five chapters, one for each season in the title. Not only do the chapters take place during those seasons, but they are also corresponding to times in one man’s life as he grows from small child to an old man. Every chapter starts with a title card of the season. Then ornate doors, which sit on the banks of the lake, open up to reveal a monk’s monastery.
During Spring, Old Monk raises Child Monk. Child gets into some cruel mischief by tying rocks around animals. To teach the child a lesson Old Monk ties a large rock around the child and sends him off to find the animals he bound the day before. Old Monk warns him that if any of the animals died he’d carry the stone in his heart the rest of his life.
During Summer, Child has grown into Boy Monk, 17 years old. A young girl is brought out to the monastery to be healed. Old Monk tells her mother, “When she finds peace in her soul, her body will return to health.” The girl intrigues the Boy and their flirtation leads to a love affair. The Old Monk discovers them. The girl is healed and returns to her mother, and Boy leaves the monastery to follow her.
During Fall, the Boy has become a 30-year old Young Adult. The filmmaker chose the word “Fall” as opposed to “Autumn” since this chapter is also about the fall of the Young Adult. He returns to the monastery a fugitive for killing the girl from Summer due to her infidelity. He is given the penance of carvings a series of Buddhist sutras into the deck of the monastery. Two police detectives arrive. They talk with the Old Monk and he convinces them to let Young Adult finish his task to purge the feelings and atone for his actions. They agree and take Young Adult away when he finishes. Old Monk creates a funeral pyre in a boat and kills himself.
During Winter, an older Adult Monk returns to the abandoned monastery. A woman, hiding her face with a veil, brings an infant to leave in the monk’s care. Adult Monk drags a large rock to the top of a mountain, similar to what he had done to those animals back when he was a child during Spring. Adult Monk makes his way to the top of the mountain overlooking the lake and monastery.
…And Spring, the cycle starts over as the new Child Monk gets into some similar mischief as the Adult Monk did during his Spring Sequence.
The film looks beautiful. The cinematography does an excellent job of capturing the colors of the seasons. The location of the monastery was exquisite and seemed well suited for the task it was built. Inside of the monastery a door didn’t enclose the monk’s bedroom. Respect was illustrated when someone used a door or when they chose to walk through the space in the wall.
I didn’t understand why the Old Monk killed himself. He was in fine health so I found it unexpected; however, understanding the situation might not be the correct path because the film, similar to most Eastern religions, is not about understanding events. The true knowledge comes from accepting the events and learning from them.
I found the film to be a fascinating look at the different stages of man and the different ordeals that he faces. Innocence, Love, Evil, Enlightenment and Rebirth. It’s a film with long scenes that are meant to allow you to reflect on parallel stages in your own life. The sequence during Winter with Adult Monk dragging the rock and meditating went on slightly too long or maybe it just seemed too long because I wasn’t at that same stage of development as the character was.
This film might require too much contemplation for some viewers, so if you only go to movies for mindless entertainment, this is not the film for you. I would ask you to give it a chance but the amount of sex and senseless violence won’t be enough to keep your mind from thinking.