|'The people the director invites us to spend time with are not just puppets for him to move; they have agency, make mistakes, learn and grow.'|
One of Ebert's great movies, Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... And Spring attracts through its promise of wisdom. In the first act ('Spring') we are introduced to an elderly monk (Oh Yeong-su) and his pupil (Seo Jae-kyeong), living on a floating monastery, in the middle of an isolated lake. The pupil behaves cruelly towards the animal inhabitants which share the locale and his master teaches him a moral lesson in a practical manner. We get the pitch. In the five acts on offer, we are going to be invited to learn something, to be given access to the moral fortitude of Ki-duk's hermetic characters, espousing the value of Buddhism.
If that was all the film had to offer (and it does offer that), it would probably be something of a trudge; two hours of being told how we should live our lives and being shown the practical manner in which we can do so. Ki-duk has something else too though; character, warmth and a substantial amount of overall motivation and movement. The people he invites us to spend time with are not just puppets for him to move; they have agency, make mistakes, learn and grow.
There is also though an element of self-awareness about the fictitious fabric of the film, an admission that this is a convenient lens through which we are learning about life, the universe and everything. Each of the five acts sees us introduced to the action by way of doors opening on to the lake. It looks very similar to Vietnamese water puppet theatre, or perhaps more obviously, the raising curtain of a stage. Life isn't like this and Ki-duk leaves breadcrumbs to show he knows that (watch for several times the older monk invokes some level of mystical skill - or is it just storytelling convenience - to make something happen or get somewhere), but that doesn't mean this isn't a valid presentation of it, a good model to follow.
Ki-duk, a director who has carved out a name for himself as South Korea's enfant terrible (some achievement, given the nature of many offerings from the country's directors), shows unexpected tenderness and an entirely expected hint of misogyny during the period in the film which introduces The Girl (Ha Yeo-jin) to the master and his now slightly older apprentice (Kim Young-min). In one short act you buy both the turning of the young monk and the place of this segment in the nature of the tale. Unfortunately the director can't wrangle a satisfying narrative reason for The Girl being cured from the ailment which drew her to the retreat, resulting in the master rather articulating that the physical attentions of his apprentice have formed the basis of new found health.
By the close, the film has unwound an intriguing effect. It rarely grips, the staccato nature of its structure offering little chance for it to do so, but it does prove affecting and involving; a gentle lilt, in tune with the rhythms of life, love and death.