Korean director Kim Ki-Duk’s 2003 Buddhist-inspired film, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring,” comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Friday, Oct. 18. Buddhist teacher Tenzin Namsel, who is visiting the Island and conducting workshops here, will lead a discussion of the film’s Buddhist themes following the screening.
One remarkable aspect of “Spring,” evident from the start, is its powerful celebration of the world’s natural beauty. The film was shot on Jusan Pond, a 200-year-old man-made lake in a South Korean wilderness preserve in North Kyungsang Province. The exquisitely wooded hills — occasionally garlanded with mist — around the lake and its calm waters where humans live in harmony with their surroundings, can be seen as an unspoken commentary on deteriorating global conditions elsewhere. In the same way, the narrative proceeds with much that is unspoken but emblematic.
“Spring” begins as a set of beautifully decorated double doors without walls open onto the vista of a small house floating on a raft in the lake. Inside this one-room building, a Buddhist monk (Oh Yeong Su) prays at an altar, then wakes up his companion and presumed apprentice, a six- or seven-year-old boy (Kim Jong Ho). The scene is set for the story of their lives together, dominated by the natural world that surrounds them and the harmony it offers. Beginning with spring, that story unfolds over the seasons referenced in the film’s title. The care and simplicity with which the movie constructs its pared-down narrative signals to viewers that they need to pay close attention.
Soon the little boy is playing among the rocks and pools next to the lake. He amuses himself by tying a rock first to a fish he has captured, then a frog, and a snake. His mentor watches, and later, when the apprentice is asleep, ties a rock to his back, advising the boy when he wakes up complaining that he needs to free the creatures he’s harnessed. If any of them have died, the boy will find a rock tied around his heart for the rest of his life. It’s an eloquent lesson about empathy, and the first in a series of increasingly complex teachings that come with each of the seasons that follow.
New characters enter the narrative in the ensuing seasons, including a young woman and her mother, and, later, two detectives, then a woman and a child. Even though many of its elements remain unexplained, the story of the old and young monks gains momentum as it unfolds and grows increasingly compelling. As with much Buddhist teaching, the message of “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” is both stunningly clear and frustratingly enigmatic. Viewers will not need to espouse Buddhism to appreciate the movie’s beauty and drama.
This weekend the Film Center will also play “Spinning Plates,” a documentary about the challenges facing three restaurants, and bring back “Haute Cuisine” and “Love Is All You Need.” The Classic Wednesday Nights feature is “Like Water for Chocolate.”
“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring,” Friday, October 18, 7:30 pm, Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members; $7 children under 14. For tickets or information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.