Movie review in the Friday, May 14 Oregonian....
At the moment, Portland's a sort of Ground Zero for spiritual cinema. "The Passion of the Christ" is reminding Christians that their faith is founded on a brutal blood sacrifice. Meanwhile, "What the Bleep Do We Know?" is attempting nothing less than a popular Grand Unification of science and New Age mysticism. And now we have "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring," a gorgeous Zen parable that's been aptly described (by the New York Observer's Andrew Sarris) as "Buddhism 101."
Directed by Ki-duk Kim ("The Isle"), this award-winning Korean film is a series of measured lessons about life, death, sex, nature and inner peace, illustrated by five leisurely visits to a floating Buddhist monastery. There's a narrative gimmick implied by the title -- we visit the monastery during each of those seasons -- but the movie itself spans roughly four decades, following the life of a nameless young monk (played by Jong-ho Kim, Jae-kyeong Seo, Young-min Kim and finally by the director himself, who does a mean flying kick).
Our young hero is not, it should be noted, the sort of Buddhist who tends to turn up in Hollywood entertainments -- a sage who lives in perpetual enlightenment and never, ever makes mistakes. No, this kid agonizes, suffers and screws up. The tough lessons begin right away, juxtaposed against the lazy, placid setting: As a child, the monk ties stones to animals and leaves them struggling to move -- and so his loving master (Yeong-su Oh) ties a stone to the child's back. "If any of the animals is dead, you will carry the stone in your heart the rest of your life," the master warns the child. Sure enough, two creatures turn up dead -- when the child weeps with remorse, it's devastating -- and the master's prophecy of a haunted life comes to pass: The young monk abandons the monastery for years at a time -- after falling in lust with a young woman (Yeo-jin Ha) and committing a bloody crime of passion.
But he always returns to the swinging gates of home. And the movie -- and this is its minor miracle -- achieves a calm poetry and deep humanity as it guides us through his anguish.
Agnostic fans of pure cinema are going to find a lot to love here. The monastery itself -- which floats lazily on Jusan Pond in Korea's lush North Kyungsang Province -- is a cinematographer's dream; there are countless shots of master and student dwarfed by water, wind and sky as they struggle with the concerns of the flesh. And while it's hard to get a handle on a lead character played by four different actors, Yeong-su Oh is a wonderful grounding force as the enlightened (and quietly supernatural) master: Little twinkles of mischief play across his face, and when he finally explodes into violence after his pupil tries to kill himself, it's a shocker -- but also a confirmation of his deep love for his adoptive son.
Viewers open to Zen teachings will find purchase in the film's constant, unforced parable-making, its embrace of animals as symbols (there's a different animal living on the monastery for every season) and its characters striving for a very un-American brand of inner perfection. It's fitting that the young man is played by so many actors -- he represents humanity itself, struggling toward a higher truth.
That said, if you don't believe a murderer can be spiritually redeemed by spending a night carving Prajnaparamita sutras on a dock -- the Buddhist equivalent, one supposes, of writing names on a chalkboard -- some of that poetry's going to ring a little false. And, after a flaming sacrifice that feels like the film's emotional climax, "Spring, Summer" grows slightly wearying in its final act -- becoming increasingly cryptic with its lessons, parables and symbols as winter looms. (Though, to be fair, that may be less a function of the film's problems and more a function of this critic's shaky footing in Buddhist thought.)
Many critics who railed against "The Passion"'s bloodlust and lack of context are going to give "Spring, Summer" a pass. This isn't a complete surprise, of course: Certainly, they're very different films -- one traffics in bloody sacrifice, another is determined to put human concerns in context by contrasting them with nature's quiet might. But both films are, ultimately, works of deep faith -- visually poetic tracts guided by strict spiritual worldviews. If you watched them in a triple feature with "What the Bleep," it would be fascinating to see where your soul landed.
(103 minutes; rated R for some strong sexuality) Grade: B-plus