thoughts about Kim Ki-Duk's movie
“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. . . and Spring”
Exquisite images of breathtakingly beautiful nature are the backdrop to a haunting story of human suffering and failed lives. On the surface, it seems that we are watching the initiation of a monk and an idyllic, pure way of life. But behind this deceiving surface, tragedy unfolds. In the beginning, during springtime, we see a child growing up on a small, extremely isolated island in the custody of an old man. There is no other human contact. One day, the young boy catches a fish, ties a stone around him, and throws him back into the water. The man he calls master watches him, from a hidden position, but does not interfere. The boy does the same with a frog and then a snake, which he leaves lying on a rock.
Watching this, I thought that the boy’s unconscious was sharing his suffering—being tied not only to this tiny island-house floating on the lake but also tied to the old man he cannot escape. Throughout the movie I wondered, why is the boy in this place? How did he get there? A boy this young cannot be in such a predicament out of his own, free will. I asked myself, why does this boy have to grow up in such isolation?
While the boy sleeps, the master ties a rock to his back. When the boy awakens, he is instructed that he can only get rid of the stone when he has liberated the three animals. He is also told, "if one of them has died, you'll carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life."
I was stunned at that point. First, the master did not interfere, when the animals were endangered, which I found cruel. Earlier, he had explained to the boy an herb, which could have killed the boy. Now, it was the master's duty to protect the animals and to be a guide for the boy, informing him of the nature and possible consequences of his actions. Why did the master not teach the boy in that situation too?
Next, he burdened the boy with heavy guilt for the master's own neglect, which enraged me. It was the master who had let the animals die. It was the master who did not interfere in time to protect them. It was the master who did not enlighten the boy about either his innocent mistake or what I perceived in truth as a scream from his soul about his profound suffering. I felt the most shocking sadness, when I realized that the master did not even try to understand this outpouring of the boy's suffering, which he reenacted with these animals. I saw the boy's actions as his attempt to express what it felt like to be tied to a man and a way of life, where his blossoming life opportunities were taken away.
In “summer,” the boy has grown into a young man. A mother brings her very ill daughter to the master. The girl spellbinds the young man, who has been without female contact. The master "discovers", after obviously looking away for a while, that they have fallen in love. In that moment, he declares the young woman "healed" and sends her away.
When the young man, crying from the pain over loosing his new-found love and connection with life, sets out to follow her, his master burdens him with a curse: ''Lust awakens the desire to possess, which ends in the intent to murder.'' This sentence is pronounced with authority from a man without any meaningful experiences with love.
The young man, raised in complete isolation from other human beings, receives no guidance or support when he leaves his master and tries to follow the woman he loves into a world he has never been allowed to know. It is the master himself whose intention is to possess his disciple and to use his power over his mind – tied through childhood dependency and the programming of the master – to keep control over him.
The curse becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and brings the disciple back twice to the tiny monastery, the second time for good.
In “fall,” a hunted man, in his prime years, returns because he has become a murderer. To cope with the angry chaos inside, he is not listened to and comforted, he does not received compassion and understanding, but is scolded, criticized, then white paper with the word “shut” written on it is glued over his eyes and mouth, and while he struggles to suppress his emotions, the master even proceeds to brutally beat him with a wooden stick, uttering the word “you young fool.” Another torture follows. The agony of his feelings is driven out of him through physical agony with harshness, violence and cruelty as if his feelings were a dangerous, horrible enemy. He is beaten, tortured and degraded into submission instead of being given the opportunity to understand and develop compassion for himself – for this abandoned, tragic human being who already as a child lost the presence and love of his parents. How much pain, devastation, questions and rage must this early loss have left behind – a wound that was torn wide open when the wife he loved and who had loved him left him for another man – a wound that drove him to murderous rage.
His final punishment before the police takes him away is an empty, degrading ritual where he must engrave written symbols, painted by his master with the tail of his cat, into the wooden deck of the house, all night long. Exhausted into submission, the young man and his anger are broken.
No word is spoken about what he has been through. He cannot share his emotions, his pain, his anger, his despair. Again he is not guided to self-understanding. When the policemen take him away, the master burns himself on the little boat on the lake. As I watched him burn, I wondered why. Like he had done to his disciple before, he had written the symbol "shut" on white paper and glued it over his eyes and mouth before he committed suicide. Had he come to see his life and his guidance of the boy entrusted to him as a failure? Was he trying to silence his own emotions?
In the winter, a middle age man returns to the isolated house on the lake. A woman whose face is covered with a purple veil visits him. And my early question, how did this child get there, is answered. She brings a child of maybe two or three years to leave him behind with a man she does not know and has never talked to. Her motives are not revealed. The whole process reminded me of an ancient ritual to sacrifice a child for so-called “spiritual gain” and strikes me as a metaphor for the tradition that Buddhist monks have been using for centuries to have children recruited and given to their monasteries – where they are then brainwashed and imprisoned for life. The historian Michael Parenti, author of “Friendly Feudalism” (http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html) tells us about the terrible, hopeless fate of these children: "One of the things that the theocratic class [in Tibet] did was go around and pick up 9-year-old boys from the peasant families and bring them into the monasteries to be used as sexual objects and recruited into the monk hood, or used as soldiers or domestic servants or whatever else. And a lot of those monks left, when the Chinese gave the option to the monasteries and said: ‘Anybody who wants to leave can leave.’ And thousands of them left; never wanted to be there. The older monks stayed and continued on a modest government stipend plus whatever money they could make by presiding over weddings and funerals and the likes.”
As the woman leaves, struggling to walk across the ice with a scarf around her face, which she has worn since she arrived on the scene, she drowns in a hole in the ice. As he finds her frozen and dead, the man drags a millstone up the surrounding mountains, punishing like he was punished as a boy for killing two animals, leaving the child that was brought to him, without any responsibility and compassion, alone in the little house. While he followed his long quest of self-inflicted punishment, my indignant thoughts were more and more with the abandoned little child in the house, whose mother had left him, or had to leave him behind, and whose master was not worried about the child’s safety and well-being. The disregard for the child and his life is shocking because this child might as well have drowned in the same hole as his mother while the “master” was executing his obsession.
When spring returns, we see again a young boy with his master – it is the same boy we saw in the beginning – and now I wondered how this movie was meant. Was its purpose really to show us the wisdom and beauty of an isolated life in nature, combined with prayer, submission, and obedience?
What I saw was different. I felt sorrow for a child, taken away from his parents, put into stark isolation, who must become a monk. I saw a tragic circle of wasted life portrayed in this movie. It starts with a child's loss of his parents and his abduction into an environment where he is removed from making his own valuable experiences and having contact with other human beings. I witnessed a child betrayed of his freedom. His “master” seemed to me not wise but tyrannical, very lost and cruel.
If an adult man wants to live as a monk in isolation and in harmony with nature, it is his choice and his life. When a child is entrusted to him, a truly wise man will find out what the child feels and needs, what is going on in his soul – but not silence him with deceit, devious punishments and beatings.
The movie served as a demonstration of the futility of punishment. Punishments play an important role in the movie, at first toward the boy, then the young man, and later as self-punishment. By the end of the movie it is clear that nothing has changed or has been learned because the same horrible cycle of life will repeat itself all over again, which is strengthened by using the same boy from the beginning of the movie to act now as the new apprentice of the new master.
In the end, it became clear that the masters had been removed from their own feelings and needs as children. So they could not be open for the feelings and suffering of a child living by their side. The gorgeous images of nature only stressed for me the isolation, loneliness, and tragedy of unfulfilled lives and self-denial in the name of spirituality.
The white paper with the word “shut” became for me the embodiment of the command to “shut up” whatever is going on inside; it must be silenced and sacrificed to serve the master and a higher, spiritual purpose. And I wondered why this soul murder is called spirituality. How very telling of the way people devoted to idea of a Buddha and the idea of imperturbable calm deal with their feelings – shut them down, erase them, meditate them away – love, passion, sexual desire, sadness, anger – to become this ever smiling, not-feeling, inhuman deceitful idol carved into stone,
The more I saw this smiling statue carved in stone in the movie – it is omnipresent – the more I began to think of death: death of human feelings, death of love and human connection, death of authenticity, death of genuine, meaningful communication, death of truth, death of aliveness, the purpose of life abd life itself, and death of the human soul.
© Barbara Rogers
written originally in 2005, changed May 2008
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Screams from Childhood