The ancients asked a question we ask too seldom today: How can I live a good life? Not a happy, successful, or important life, but a good one? The answer the Korean director Kim Ki-Duk gives in his 2003 film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …and Spring is: live alone, in a house that floats in the middle of a lake that lies in a beautiful, deserted valley. Do not love, do not raise a family, do not seek out other human beings.
My wife Ilana and I saw this exquisite and nearly perfectly-crafted film at the Jerusalem Cinematheque (another South Jerusalem asset) last Monday evening. Its four segments and coda follow the interaction of an elderly Buddhist monk and his young novice. The latter appears in the first segment as a young boy, obedient, fearless, independent, and in possession of a cruel streak. We see him tie stones to a fish, a frog, and a snake, and laugh at them as they struggle woefully against the burden of which they are unaware.
In the second segment, summer, the boy has grown into his teens. A mother brings her ill daughter to the monk to be cured, and leaves her in his care. The boy falls in love with the girl and possesses her. His love cures her—but the cure means she must leave. The boy, distraught, decides to go after her, despite the monk’s warning that lust becomes possession, which in turn leads to murder.
In the fall segment, the monk is living alone. But, as he expected, the boy, now thirty years old returns. He has murdered his wife after finding out she loved another man. He overcomes his anger, does penance, and is led away by two detectives.
In the winter segment he returns, in middle age. The elderly monk has placidly committed suicide on the lake. The boy takes possession of the floating monastery and achieves inner piece. A veiled woman brings him a baby, and the cycle begins again in a short spring coda.
The entire film takes place in the house, on the lake, and in the small valley around it. The landscape is stunning, the peacefulness palpable in the cool colors of the water and the trees. No doubt the story and scenes refer to elements in Korean and Zen Buddhist stories with which I am not familiar, but the film stands on its own without this background.
Despite the beauty, however, the message is disturbing. The film says: maintain your spiritual and emotional equilibrium by eschewing love and human contact (especially with women). The evil impulse within us all will do us in if we dare to engage other human beings.
The peace that the older monk evinces and that the younger one achieves is alluring; who of us has not wanted, at times, to flee the world and live alone. But is this really the way to live the good life? Isn’t it, fundamentally, a selfish life?
I guess I wouldn’t make a good Buddhist. For my money, this is a fine film to see, but not one to live by.