One of the surest signs of a great film is how much it haunts you after the screening. I know I have seen something top-drawer when I am brushing my teeth, backing the car into a parking spot, having a cup of afternoon coffee – and scenes from a movie seen months ago suddenly pop into my head. By this yardstick the South Korean film made by Ki-duk Kim in 2003 – called “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring” – has to be among the best films I have seen this year.
My friend Lizanne Merrill urged me to see the film, knowing, as she does, it has some parallels with the novel I am writing now, called Buddhaland Brooklyn. Both my book and Kim’s film are about a Buddhist priest and a temple and their various transformations over four seasons. Kim and I are, in fact, calling on an established Asian literary tradition where the four seasons are not to be viewed as a literal sequence of linear time, but symbols of transformations taking place within a person during an entire lifetime.
But there our two works part company. I don’t want to give away the plot here, but Kim’s film is about an aging Buddhist priest and his young acolyte, and it’s a very stark and shocking human story that unfolds against an incredibly bucolic and tranquil-looking temple grounds and setting. The film is really about passion and attachments and the reason for being and the illusions of life and, most importantly, about karmic retribution. That, I think, is what this movie is really about. Most Westerners have a sanitized and shangri-la image of Buddhism, where tolerance and wisdom are the key bywords, but in reality many Buddhist sects are as fundamentalist and rigidly doctrinaire as any sects found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I think this film does a brilliant job bringing the doctrine of karma to life. No-character in this film – and I mean no-one – can escape the karmic ripples and repercussions of their actions. Watch closely to what happens to the mother, towards the end of the movie, after she abandons her out-of-wedlock child at the temple.
Kim is like Hitchcock – a seemingly inconsequential act instantly creates karma that ripples disastrously through the universe. So do yourself a favor. Rent a copy of “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring”. It’s an eye opener.