Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Yeong-su Oh, Ki-duk Kim, Young-min Kim, Yeo-jin Ha
Director: Ki-duk Kim
Audio: Korean 5.1
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Trailer
Length: 102 minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2004

"You will carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life."

Film ***

One of the more memorable Korean films in recent years has been Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, 2003).  A deceptively simple tale of a life's journey for an old Buddhist monk and his young disciple, the film traces the pupil's development from his early training through his adolescent rites of passage and finally to the rationality and wisdom of age.  Set amongst the tranquil mountain waters and isolated valleys of the wilderness, the film foregoes narrative conventions (and even dialogue, for the most part), instead weaving a tapestry of images and allegorical passages which touch upon the very nature of human existence.  The film is, in short, a metaphor for the circle of life itself.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is divided into "seasons" which follow the course of the boy's life as he matures into the role of his elder master.  In the springtime of his youth, the child serves under the wise but taciturn monk (Yeong-su Oh), tending to his few needs and following his guidance.  Together, master and child live upon an isolated, floating temple that rests in the serene waters of the mountains, softly swaying with the breezes yet never drifting afar.  The two are completely alone, for there is naught about them save for the creatures of the wild.  Whatever lessons of life and death that are to be learned by the young disciple arise from observing the quiet interactions of the old Buddhist monk with this natural world.

True wisdom can only be imparted through the lessons taught by experience.  Lacking this insight, the soul is doomed to repeat its mistakes in a ceaseless cycle.  Only by recognizing the inherent flaws in one's own nature can the soul transcend its earthly, mortal bounds.  The elderly mentor does not preach to his young disciple so much as allow the boy to discover for himself the inevitable consequences that arise from his actions or the emotions of lust, anger, or sorrow. 

In the film's first chapter, the boy, in a transient moment of boredom, explores the surrounding forests.  He playfully torments the small animals of the woods, as a child is wont to do, by impeding their mobility with stones tied to them.  Only later, under the omniscient watch of the monk, is the child made to experience for himself and ultimately comprehend the error and poignant consequences of his act.

In the second chapter, the young disciple has matured into adolescence.  One day, in a stroll along the woody paths, he encounters a mother and daughter traversing the glens and valleys of this region.  The daughter (Yeo-jin Ha) is ill, and the mother has brought her on this long journey to seek out the old Buddhist master for healing.  The daughter's wound is a spiritual one, for which the medicines of Western culture have no cure.  This is the first introduction of the outside world into the isolation of the monks, and the presence of the girl draws forth new and uncertain feelings within the disciple, for whom the yearnings of adolescence begin to arise.  Through this segment, and more tragically into the "fall" chapter, the disciple will learn about the potent and sometimes terrible ramifications that love and unhindered emotion can inflict upon a fallible soul.

Years later, the pupil has abandoned the teachings of his Master.  However, he has become trapped in a self-created quagmire of emotional torment, and he must conquer his inner turmoil before he can find peace.  In the imminent autumn of his years, the former disciple returns from the alienation of the outside world to seek out his old Master for a final lesson.  The old monk teaches him the Prajnaparamita Sutra to soothe the restless anger in his soul.

In the film's "winter" segment, the disciple, now a wiser man (Ki-duk Kim), is alone in his solitude.  Having forsaken the outside world, he has atoned for the errors of his youth and has returned to his former home, the floating temple on the water.  In the wintry snows, the waters have frozen, and the temple is long abandoned.  The disciple must slowly restore the building, bringing life and animation back within its small enclosure and performing the final rites of respect for his former old Master.

By the conclusion of the film, the tale has come full circle.  The student has transformed into the new and wise mentor, caring for an infant orphan left in his care.  Whether these final moments are to be considered reflections of the circular flow of life or of reincarnation itself , or whether the ending represents the passage of wisdom from one generation to the next, is up to the viewer to decide.  The film's Zen simplicity, embracing a compassion for all things living, suggests that in all of us lies the strength to transcend our human faults and desires through the accumulated wisdom of our lives' sometime-painful lessons.

The story to Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is a simple one that is open to individual interpretation.  As the film contains very little dialogue, its themes are imparted through a juxtaposition of imagery and subtle symbolism.  What we ourselves learn from the film does not require any background in Tao Buddhism per se but, rather, is fundamental to the very essence of humanity.  How we live, how we choose to interact with one another, and how we deal with the tribulations of our own conflicts are at the very core of this remarkably spiritual Korean film, and that transcends all religions or ethnicities.

Video ***

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is an entirely visual film and has received a decent transfer to DVD.  The bit transfer rate averages around 4 Mbps.  Colors are crisp and natural in appearance, and there are no incongruous mastering artifacts.  The grain is moderate but with generally solid contrast levels.

Audio ***

Foreign films tend not to do very well in the U.S. for the simple reason that most Americans do not like to read subtitles.  Fortunately, while Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is presented in Korean 5.1, the dialogue is extremely sparse and almost nonexistent.  The soundtrack thus consists mostly of an ethereal score and natural sounds - the flowing of streams, the rustling of leaves and branches, and the cries of untamed wildlife.  Furthermore, the rhythmic ambiance of Buddhist chants adds an almost hypnotic aura to the film's soundtrack.  The result is a universally-appealing film that anyone can enjoy or perhaps draw inspiration from without fretting over too many subtitles.

Features *

The offerings are quite spartan here.  Aside from a trailer for this film and others for Zhou Yu's Train (starring Gong Li), Carandiru, Broken Wings (a multiple Award-winning Israeli film), Winged Migration (a celebrated avian documentary) and Young Adams (a mystery starring Ewan McGregor), there are no further bonus features.


Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring transcends the bounds of conventional film narratives to present a spiritual tale of redemption and acceptance.  If you're tired of the same old, superficial Hollywood product, watch instead this exceptional and magical Korean film!

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