Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring
Reviewed by 1. sieteocho 2. Ambient Noise 3. Sinnerman
Korean Title: Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Writing Credits: Kim Ki-duk
Cast: Oh Yeong-su, Kim Ki-duk, Kim Young-min, Seo Jae-kyeong
Country: South Korea
Year Released: 2003
Runtime: 103 min
1. Review by sieteocho
Rating ***½ (out of five stars)
This review was actually a posting on a film forum in response to Ambient Noises assertion that this film is not really about Buddhism (see review 2 below).
Just watched this movie on VCD. (Yeah I know I'm cheap but so's my trash can.)
This film is Buddhist in its world view. We want to think about the basic stuff, the big ideas. They are here: the four noble truths. Not all four are here, but there is:
The truth of suffering.
3 examples of suffering. (Christians call this "sin", but they are similar, since sin is precisely that which leads to suffering.) Cruelty, lust, and jealousy.
The idea is that suffering is ubiquitous. Why does shit happen? Not because there's some big bad guy out there who has a funky ring on his pinky. No folks, the sin is in our hearts.
The truth of desire.
And that's the idea behind Buddhism: people sin because their heads are full of shit. Desire is the cause of their heads being full of shit. The emphasis on meditation is so that you can clear your head of shit. The boy was cruel because he was playful. The young man was lustful because some chick paid a visit. The middle-aged man killed that chick because he got jealous and couldn't hold on to her.
It's that desire thing at work. It's not exactly desire the way we say it in English, but it's more like being fixated on something and letting your guard down, being shoddy and careless with your morals.
And to underline the point, the old master said, you screwed the chick, too bad. It's over, forget about it. So screwing the chick itself is not really that sinful. What's really sinful is what's in the mind when he screwed the chick. The lying awake at night, hankering after those tits, the allowing her to sit on the statue even though it's forbidden. And the going into the big bad world to chase after her warm luscious body.
And to the guy who said that this flick is not Buddhist because the guy carves a Buddha, it just reminded me of the Taliban saying "idolatry is bad" and blowing up those 2 giant Buddha statues. I mean you see Buddha statues everywhere and they have to come from some place right?
The idea of dragging a stone up the mountain is not penitence, as ambient noise has mistakenly assumed. Being able to feel compassion for your fellow beings is one of the core tenets of Buddhism, and he just wanted to see what it was like for the fish / snake / frog he did the same thing to when he was younger. It's the closing of the circle that, after wantonly inflicting suffering upon other people that deluded beings are apt to, he starts to understand more clearly the other side of the equation.
There is a critique of the statement: "Lust leads to a desire to possess and that leads to murder." This is a clear example of desire leading to suffering. It is entirely consistent with the Buddhist world view of things being highly causal. Why suffering is such a powerful idea, is because it takes many different forms, yet you can identify it as one phenomenon. Whether the result is guilt, or anxiety, or jealousy, or murder, it's all suffering that came from his sexual desire. He does weaken his case by explicitly naming the murder but if he said suffering he'd have been spot on. Thats the thing in Buddhism sin and suffering are almost synonymous with each other.
About the cruelty and suffering bit, the middle aged man coming back as a disheveled fugitive: this guy has obviously gone nuts. His head is full of shit. Being tied up and suspended from the ceiling, that rope stretching and being burnt bit, is the expressionistic manifestation of the suffering. The master beating him up is literally beating the shit out of him. You think that Buddhism doesn't condone violence? But worse things have happened. I've read stories about zen Buddhist masters chopping off their disciples fingers for stupid mistakes. If somebody is trying to teach you something, and the methods are harsh it's not really cruelty.
In the end he clears his mind by carving that sutra onto the jetty, metaphorically he's carving it onto his heart. Plus it's meditative, plus it looks funky. Brilliant scene that works on so many levels. The depiction of violence has this underlying point - it is the mirror of the spiritual violence. I think this is truer than saying that the master is actually punishing him.
So when you think about whether the film is Buddhist or not, you don't think about the nitty gritty, but check that the big philosophic ideas are there. Buddhism has gone halfway around the world and there are many manifestations.
I like the part about the doors. They pose very interesting philosophical questions.
First, they look funky. Funky looking things are always good in films.
Second, if you've watched "L'Avventura" you notice a lot of corridors, a lot of doors. Doors are the passageways to experience. A door means you leave a realm and enter another realm and it's like the passing of time, you know what I mean?
Third, Having a door in the middle of nowhere looks kinda dumb but I think it's like saying, the Buddhist realm is separate from the big bad world, but in other respects it's not that separate. It's like you ask a Buddhist monk a question and he'll give you such an elliptical yes no answer that you want to bang your head against the wall, know what I mean? But that's OK, since a straight yes or a straight no is wrong anyway.
It's not just a feature of the film. In Japan they have all those archways that look like the Chinese character kai1. Know what's that about?
Liked the film. Won't say that it's a masterpiece but a great attempt nevertheless.
Just want to add something about the objection to idolatry in Islam and Buddhism.
1. For Islam, the objection is like this:
Allah is the creator, there is none above him. He's the only one allowed to create, for he is the great creator. If you create or worship idols, or visual representations of people, you are usurping his power.
2. For Buddhism, the objection is this:
The sin is desire and fixation. The lack of insight, of seeing things on the surface, instead of understanding the deeper underlying meaning. If you want to carve a statue so you can achieve meditative effects through arts, that's fine. If you want to spread the word of the Buddha that's also fine. But if you mislead people into thinking that the statue is all there is toward Buddhism, then that's not fine.
2. Review by Ambient Noise
Throughout the film, I find myself struggling to discern the tone of the film. Was it realist, folkloric, metaphorical? Having quickly rejected the film as being realist, I then decided it also wasn't folkloric. Subsequently, the only approach that made sense to me was the metaphorical. If it's indeed metaphorical, then what is it a metaphor of? Buddhism? Or man's search for spirituality?
I shall now present my case that this film:
-- has very little to do with Buddhism on a literal level and later segments run counter to Buddhist teachings,
-- fails on a metaphorical level,
-- and fails also as a work of art.
By what authority do I claim to critique the film's treatment of Buddhism? I had undertaken several years of serious Buddhist scholarship, culminating at the Abhidharma level. So I'm not just talking out of my arse.
Let us examine the Buddhist elements one by one.
In the Spring segment, the old master tied a rock to the child's back in order for him to comprehend the suffering he's causing to other living beings. Doing so also teaches the child to practise loving kindness toward all living beings. This aspect is perhaps the only true Buddhist element in the film and similar folkloric illustrations can be found in canonical texts.
In Summer, the young monk falls prey to lust. The elder chastises him by saying, "Lust leads to a desire to possess and that leads to murder."
Did he get this from the Buddha or Yoda? It is reductivist and nonsensical and even the Buddha might laugh in your face were you to say that to him. Abstinence from sexual misconduct forms one of the Five Precepts. The rationale for this precept is a simple one: lust is a powerful manifestation of sensual desire, which in turn, forms the bedrock for suffering (dukkha). Every Buddhist strives to eradicate, or at least minimize, this universal suffering. That lust may lead one to commit murder is a probability but even the Buddha himself cannot foresee the future.
It is in the following Fall segment that the film departs from Buddhism completely, never to return. In order to emancipate the young man from his mental agony, the wise monk whips him and ties him up! Corporal punishment is never, ever undertaken by any Buddhist, and no end can justify this action. It is clear that the man suffers from the five states of mental hindrances: desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. A true Buddhist elder would guide him back onto the Noble Eightfold Path by getting him to meditate. There are myriad forms of meditation and at least one is well-suited to a person of his temperament.
Carving out those characters as a start is a good way to calm him down. But even after doing so, what wisdom does the work impart? He knows the words to the sutra but not their essence.
Subsequently, the monk commits suicide (there is no other way to describe it). Although monks have been reported to give up their lives voluntarily, what divides such action from suicide is, simply, intention. In that case of a Vietnamese monk immolating himself, it was in the service of catalyzing political reform, thus reducing suffering for his people. In his case, it is a moral action. A Buddhist chronicle recounts how a Bodhisattva (a previous incarnation of the Buddha) approached a tyrant King to request the emancipation of his slaves. The King agreed, on the condition that the number of slaves freed be equal to the duration the Bodhisattva can stay underwater. As expected, he drowned himself voluntarily, that his people could go free.
The monk in the film had no such intention to benefit others when he burned himself. Though not forbidden insofar as nothing is expressly forbidden in Buddhism, suicide to alleviate one's suffering is deemed particularly heinous. A life snuffed out before its natural end causes a great accrual of bad karma and leads to rebirth in the lower realms. It is implied in the film that not only is the snake the monk reborn, but also that the monk desired this form of rebirth. This is, in fact, antithetical to Buddhist beliefs. According to Buddhism, the best rebirth is that of a human being as it offers the best opportunity for gaining enlightenment. The other realms offer few opportunities for good actions and spiritual advancement.
That the monk could desire this is analogous to a practising Christian not accepting Christ as his Savior.
Furthermore, the old monk's act cannot be interpreted as a transcendence of his material body. This cannot be achieved through any physical act but only through purification of one's mind.
Further perversion occurs in the penultimate Winter episode. The young man now returns to the sanctuary, evidently to take up residence there. He seems wiser now, less impetuous and appears to have more control over his sensual desires. Do these attributes reflect his spiritual growth?
Perhaps. Or perhaps it's only because he has grown older.
He then carves a Buddha statue out of ice. An act of idolatry, but if the carving serves as a focus for his meditation and reverence then it's justified. This wasn't the case.
Things got conspicuously ridiculous when the film turns into The Shaolin Temple, thereby playing to Western stereotypes of Buddhism. Further absurdity gets underway when he carries a Buddha statue up a mountain while being shackled to a huge stone. This form of physical repentance has no place in Buddhism because atonement simply doesn't exist in Buddhism. You reap what you sow. The stone in his heart cannot be eradicated in any way. That endeavour of his represents the basest form of idolatry, again contradicting Buddhist tenets.
In fact, those scenes were so exaggerated and laughable, Kim Ki-duk might as well score The Eye of the Tiger to accompany them.
So the film fails as an examination of Buddhism on a literal level. How about metaphorically?
Well, the Buddha taught that the mind is like a pond (or a lake) and mental hindrances disturb its surface. That being the case, then the hermitage can be construed as the seat of emotions (or heart, if you prefer). The drama that plays out in that abode reflects man's struggle with suffering (dukkha) and desire (tanha). The cyclical nature of the film invokes the twelve spokes on the Buddhist Wheel of Life (Pratitya-Samutpada).
But do all these make the film innately Buddhist?
No, it doesn't. Buddhism encapsulates the entirety of human experience. Those attributes can even be found in movies as disparate as Raising Victor Vargas, Unforgiven or The Godfather.
Does it then work on other metaphorical levels? Does it work artistically?
No, to both. Although I am fond of exegesis, often interpreting films through semiotics, I recognise that films are more than a system of symbols to be deciphered with one-to-one correlations. A director with such intentions limits the world of his film. The film thus becomes inert and inexpressive; it may symbolize life but neither embodies nor expresses it.
Some scenes in this movie may stand out as being obtuse and in need of clarification. Instead, I find them all too unambiguous, all too hollow. There is not a single detail not permeated with the author's intent. I am indeed sickened by Kim's allegorical tendentiousness that underpins his system of images with a deliberate ideology. It's a sign of provincialism, of the need to be noticed as an artist.
Even Marx said that tendency in art has to be hidden, so that it doesn't stick out like springs out of a sofa. The springs in this movie frequently stick out and poke you in the ass.
Consider also the actors playing the novice monk through the first three seasons. They strain so hard to be expressive in dramatic situations that I cringe at their uninhibited display of theatricality. All of them are extraordinarily shallow and ostentatious actors, their bursts of temperament artificial. Their performance distances us and invites no empathy.
Where the f*** did all these actors learn their craft? From the Korean National School of Teledrama?
If it seems that I am inordinately harsh on this film, well, you're right. This was the opening film of the Singapore International Film Festival, which is our tiny window into the current state of world cinema. When I peer out of it and see a film like this one, I am displeased. In fact, I had to go home and detox with Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev and be comforted by cinema's ability to express man's spiritual struggle in terms no other artform can even approximate.
Kim Ki-duk's film, on the other hand, attempts to present such a struggle, only it did so through exaggeration and overstatement. Pity; I had hoped that this film would reverse my long-held prejudices against Korean cinema. No dice.
Korean films. Pah.
3. Review by Sinnerman
Stalemate!!! (Why am I not surprised?)
Thank you Ambient Noisemaker. Your generous time taken to cut said film to shreds has helped to illustrate my earlier point that, even if one understands Buddhism ("culminating at the Abhidharma level"), one may not necessarily like those five seasons.
Nobody's right or wrong really....for from my "secular" (or as Ambient Noise will most probably dismiss as "ignorant") point of view, my increased understanding of what's been posted here (about pro-Buddhism metaphor or its utter desecration), does not affect my dislike for it. Thats because my lack of wisdom in Buddha's teaching does not influence my ability (or choice) to judge said flick with my own moral compass as a yard stick. And if based on that alone, said film is already too deviated from what I deem good cinema nor does it offer me valuable life lessons that I don't already know (however metaphorical it is). Put simply, I will not depict animal torture or self-ignition suicide just to advocate any one particular school of religious thoughts or lofty meta ambition. But thats just me.
Side note on Buddhism (i.e., not entirely related to this film alone).
Over the years, I found it very interesting, this "reverential" status accorded to Buddhism by many people (believers and nonbelievers alike). I have seen such sentiments in this thread and also in the Herzog documentary "Wheel of time". For if people can bash Christianity, so should Buddhism be given its time of day (for our glorious bashing that is), shouldn't it?
In my still preliminary (i.e., layman or non-Abhidharma level) search for "universal wisdom", I actually found Buddhism to be my most "disappointed" religion. Yes, more so than Christianity (for now).
So without "proper guidance" (i.e., a lot of guesswork and assumptions made), below is but one reason why I cannot respond to Buddhism completely. I felt one of Buddhism's primary conceit (correct me if I'm wrong) is for humans to not trust their emotions and to leave it behind in order to ultimately gain enlightenment. Worldly desires like lust and love are but a passing phase in one's journey toward Nirvana. Hence, one should learn to "let go" of these shackles before one "advances". But I have one problem; I cannot "let go", for I felt the "suffering" aspect of a precept like lust for instance, does not acknowledge the balancing aspect of the "joys" which lust (or love, alcohol etc.) brings...
In case people now come in for the kill and skewer me for sport, my above "disappointment" may be because I am still not properly educated (yet). So dear people in the know (you needn't have "culminated at the Abhidharma level"), where should I begin? Where should I embark on my "spiritual journey" with Buddha?