Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring is in every way a visually magnificent and spiritually contemplating piece of work. It demonstrates the essential principles of Buddhism by structuring the monk’s journey through the seasonal metaphor. Despite the small settings (the scenes are entirely confined to the Jusan pond in Korea), the film discusses, or rather contemplates on, a surprisingly large spectrum of human emotions and experiences, including lust, wrath, love, hate, suffering, murder, suicide, and redemption.
The continual cycle of life, encompassing all these emotions and experiences, is just like the eternally renewable four seasons.
Another brilliant Korean film, A Tale of Two Sisters, is a psychological horror movie that also discusses the idea of a “perpetual cycle”. However, it focuses more on the continual inheritance of psychosis and shameful secrets within a deeply traumatized family. Both of the films share a similar view on the importance of “letting go” in order to “gain” redemption. Both films touch on the topic of forbidden love and the importance of “letting go”.
In Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, the old monk’s wisdom shines through his words: ‘Sometimes we have to let go of things we like. What you like, others will also like’. In order to jump out of the seemingly fatalistic cycle, one must forgo certain attachments and obtain forgiveness for past sins. Most of the time, it is probably easier to obtain forgiveness granted by the victims. But the ordeal is often when the offenders cannot release themselves from the sins they have committed, and hence the sufferings and the constantly unpeaceful minds.
The film, however, does not merely focuses on punishment or even “letting go”, but rather stresses on the seeking of mental peace and moral purification as ways to the ultimate redemption. In the chapter of “winter”, the returned prodigy drags the millstone all the way to the mountain top while clinging to the Buddha statue in his arms. We can interpret his method of seeking redemption as also a way to celebrate suffering. Suffering and pleasure are inseparable and no one could have pleasure without pain.
This idea is present throughout the film, even from the beginning when the old monk tried to teach the child monk a lesson by tying the stone to his back. He is trying to teach the child the unavoidable Karmas in our lives ? he cannot expect to seek pleasure in torturing those little lives while completely staying away from torment himself. Unfortunately the child monk did not quite grasp the profound Karma concept until when he grew up and met the love of his life.
When found out about the betrayal of his lover, he went to the extreme and killed her. Here we can clearly see the cyclic nature of Karma. Everything that ends is also the beginning of something else. Hate is the result of love, just like suffering is the result of pleasure. The irony and impermanence of life lie in the sudden reversal of the extremes, such as the example of love and hate. A Tale of Two Sisters insinuates the possibility of incestuous sex between father and daughter.
This is suggested by the scenes where Su-Mi prepares the undergarments for her father, and also when the stepmother, who is really Su-Mi herself, is sleeping with the father. In the scenes where Su-Mi was acting as the “stepmother”, she was coquettish and flirtatious, wearing sexy lingerie and flashy clothes. Whereas the stepmother in real life resembles an ordinary office lady, wearing mostly formal suits that appropriately match her job as a doctor. We can see that it is Su-Mi herself who has created the “demon” and thereafter developed an intense hatred towards it.
Her being not able to let go of the tragic death of her sister is indeed the cause of her misery and insanity. In the film, we observe childhood pain and family trauma from behind the distorted vision of a deranged Su-Mi, yet the pain and sorrow present in the film are nevertheless reflected in the real world. Often the most severe pain and suffering that we feel are inflicted by our own selves. The film sagaciously suggests that the way to absolution from self-inflicted sufferings is not to seek revenge, but rather to seek forgiveness.
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