Buddhism, in all its blooming popularity, has been celebrated far too often as a cliché of peace. What many Buddhists would say is that the path to enlightenment is the acknowledgment of violence – the embrace of it as part of our being. (You can hardly transcend what you don’t accept.) It’s that awareness that was entirely missing from Martin Scorsese’s reverently inert ”Kundun,” even though Scorsese is our great poet of violence, yet it’s there in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, a haunting Buddhist drama from South Korea in which aggression, conquest, and even murder are as much a part of life as breathing.
In a valley surrounded by leafy hills, the tiniest of pagodas – actually, it’s a small monastery – floats on a stationary raft in the middle of a tranquil green lake. The old monk who lives there, played by the terrifically sharp-eyed theater actor Oh Young-Soo, has a young monk apprentice. He starts out as a boy who gleefully ties stones to a frog, a fish, and a snake – examples of a child’s mischief that are really acts of sadism. The boy becomes an adolescent, sleeping with a girl who has come to the monastery to be cured of illness, and though the old monk deplores every stage of this behavior, he refuses to judge it, even as his disciple abandons him. When the young monk returns, this time in search of a hideout to escape the police, his real education can begin.
Written, directed, and edited by Kim Ki-Duk, ”Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” has a mood of stately revelation. ”Lust awakens the desire to possess,” warns the old monk. ”And that awakens the intent to murder.” The film is destined to be praised for its serene visual eloquence, yet that’s not finally what’s potent about it. It’s a moving study of transcendence in everyday life – or, at least, the life of a monk, which perhaps no previous film has made as accessible and vivid as this one. It’s clear from the title that we’re seeing a cycle of renewal, yet the triumph of ”Spring, Summer” is that even those of us who don’t happen to be Buddhists can catch a glimpse of ourselves in the spinning wheel of hope, destruction, suffering, and bliss.