Doors Without Walls

Navigating the threshold of attachment

Dimitri Ehrlich

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . And Spring
Kim Ki-Duk, Director
Sony Pictures Classics, 2003
102 minutes

Early in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, the dreamlike new film by Korean director Kim Ki-duk, a young boy is seen playing with a fish, a frog, and a snake. An apprentice monk, he lives with his Buddhist master in a tiny temple floating on a raft in the middle of a lake. When the older monk discovers his charge gleefully tying stones to the animals, he admonishes the boy: “If any of them are dead, you will carry the stone in your heart forever.” As the film progresses, the weight of those words drowns several lives—some figuratively, some literally.

Unfolding in five distinct acts—one for each season in the title—Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring is epic in scale, yet the action is confined to just a few acres. It is a micro-world of astonishing beauty, in which doors stand in places where there are no walls—reminding us how fragile the boundary is between the sacred and the profane. There are only six characters in the film, but the passage of time and the power of nature have costarring roles in virtually every scene.

It is spring when we first meet the protagonist, and the camera invites us to spy on his childish cruelty to the animals. (Snakes, a recurring image, traditionally symbolize aversion, one of the three poisons according to Buddhist teachings; in this film they more often connote attachment.)

In the next act—summer, a few years later—the boy, now an adolescent, is startled by the sudden appearance of two women, a mother and daughter, the first visitors to his hermetic world. The daughter seeks healing from the Buddhist master for an unnamed malady; with her arrival, the young man experiences the first intimations of sexual awakening. After the mother leaves, the two teens become lovers, but the boy’s passion quickly turns to obsession. “Lust awakens the desire to possess, and that awakens the desire to murder,” the master says, as he sends away the girl, apparently now healed.

Heartbroken, the youth steals the Buddha from his master’s altar, jumps in their boat, and rows off. In one of the movie’s most powerful and understated moments, the master awakens and, without a hint of emotion, sits down to meditate before the shadow image of the Buddha on the wall behind the spot where the statue had stood.

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