Navigating the threshold of attachment
In the third act, fall, the master (now aged considerably) returns home with provisions wrapped in newspaper. As he opens the parcel, he notices a headline: MAN, 30, FLEES AFTER MURDERINGWIFE. Soon thereafter, the young man returns carrying the Buddha statue and a bloody knife, and reveals that his wife had cheated on him. “Sometimes we have to let go of things we like,” is the master’s stoic reply.
After beating his student brutally, the master, in a wryly humorous scene, begins to write the Heart Sutra on the temple deck, using his cat’s tail as a calligraphy brush. When he finishes, he commands the young man: “Carve out all of these characters, and while you are carving, anger will be cut out of your heart.”
But his purification is interrupted when plainclothes detectives arrive. They are persuaded by the master to wait, while the young man carves through the night. In a surreal demonstration of compassion, one of the detectives holds a candle for the young man, then both help him paint the characters in bright colors. This is about as far from an Arnold Schwarzenegger action thriller as one could get, and the subtlety is refreshing, though the message is somewhat muddled: Has the transforming power of the Heart Sutra affected both cops and criminal? Has the murderer’s negative karma been purified before our eyes?
Finally, the Heart Sutra is inscribed, and it is time for the police to take their quarry back to the mainland. For a moment, their boat won’t budge, no matter how hard the detectives pull on the oars—an apparent demonstration of the master’s psychic powers and, perhaps, his lingering attachment to the young man he raised. Finally, the three depart. Alone again, the old monk builds a funeral pyre for himself in his rowboat. As the flames consume him, a snake slithers along the deck.
The fourth segment, a winter many years later, includes another surprising death and unexpected plot twist as the student, now middle-aged, returns to the abandoned hermitage and takes up residence. When an infant is mysteriously placed in his care, we are left with questions. In the final spring, the film comes full circle, showing the aging monk with the child, now his young pupil.
Essentially a parable of two basic Buddhist truths—attachment causes suffering, and even the most violent negativity can be purified—Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, with just a few dozen lines of spare dialogue, is at times hard to follow. But the film is a stunning visual meditation, and what it lacks in clarity is more than made up for in sumptuous, transcendent imagery.
A musician and journalist who writes regularly for Vibe, Interview, and other publications, Dimitri Ehrlich is the author of Inside the Music: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians about Spirituality, Creativity, and Consciousness and editor in-chief of Sly, a new Paris-based music magazine.