A “Buddhist” Film Review

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003), directed by Ki-Duk Kim.  South Korea.

This beautifully photographed and exquisitely paced film tells the story of a young monk, raised from childhood by an older monk/priest, in a floating shrine on a mountain lake. The film relates the wisdom of the elder monk and the follies of his young disciple, who has an affair with and impregnates a woman, leaves the shrine and who, like the New Testament’s Prodigal Son, finally returns full of world-sin. His old Master tries to rehabilitate his young charge. By the film’s end, we are to understand that the young monk has finally achieved inner peace, if not Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the film’s ending – spoilers ahead – does not support any sense of lasting merit for the protagonist’s attainments.

We are introduced to the young monk as a child, one of whose major amusements is tormenting various small animals that he encounters in a waterfall-fed stone basin. In this pond, the child finds a fish, a frog, and a snake,  to whom he ties stones fastened with string. The little boy giggles as he watches the creatures wriggle off and struggle with their burdens. However, while this is taking place, his Master, like a tutelary spirit, is watching the boy from a short distance. When the boy returns to the floating shrine and falls asleep for the night, the elder monk ties a heavy stone to the child’s back. The next morning, the old monk directs the boy, carrying his heavy load, back to the waterfall pond. There the boy seeks out the three animals he has wounded. The fish and the snake are dead; he finds the frog and unties the string and the stone, setting the frog free. He has begun to understand, through the imposed discipline of carrying his own stone, the suffering he has inflicted on the innocent.

The film continues, depicting the young monk’s trials and his difficult period of readjustment after returning to the shrine. At one point he is presented with a little boy – his own son, whom he must raise, as he was raised, in the floating shrine. Toward the end of the film, the young monk ties a heavy rock to himself and drags a statue of what appears to be Kwan-Yin (female Buddha of compassion) to the top of a high hill that overlooks the lake and the shrine. By taking on this discipline – imposed on him from without when a child –  as an adult, the monk affirms the value of compassionate understanding, as well as his Master’s truth of vision. One might think that the film would end here on a triumphal note of a soul rescued from egoic attachment to this illusionary samsaric world. But no: the film continues on for a few minutes, a time frame in which its affirmative message is questioned, if not overturned.

The whole thrust of the film is that the young monk learns that just as he has placed senseless, tormenting burdens on animals, so too he has placed burdens on other sentient beings, including himself.

His solitary pulling the stone up the mountain carrying Kwan-Yin reiterates the stone-pulling discipline that  the old monk imposed on the monk as a child. This time, it shows his own adult, mature, ultimate agreement with his Master’s principle that it is wrong to torment beings, and it symbolizes his acknowledgement of guilt. But in the film’s final minutes, the young monk’s own little boy is shown exhibiting exactly the same cruelty that his father had committed as a child so many years before. This is sickening to watch, and even worse to reflect upon.

This is what makes the film’s message unclear and the film itself a “downer”. Our young monk has spent a lifetime trying to learn compassion and the disavowal of power. Then, his own son hastens to duplicate his father’s worst behaviors. Only this time, when the son misbehaves, unlike the case of his father (who had the old monk as mentor), the little boy does not even have the advantage of his Dad following him around to monitor and correct his misbehavior.

Thus the ending scenario is even worse than its original presentation: our young monk had a guiding mentor who knew of, and corrected, his bad behavior. But, as filmed, it is clear that now the young monk’s son has no one watching out for him. This is unmistakably the meaning: had he chosen, in filming the little boy’s father-duplicating misadventures with innocent animals, the director could – as with the earlier scenario where the old monk monitors the young monk – easily have planted our young monk in the near background, the father checking up on his son. This explicit absence of adult-and/or Enlightened watchfulness and supervision in this second, final and significant scenario is glaring and can only be intentional. The director is clearly depicting the unfolding of samsara in the little boy’s life, but this time, without even a glimmer of future redemption. The viewer is unaccountably left with a feeling of “what’s the use?”

Among other things, Buddhism concerns itself with transcending the attachments and cruelties of egoic life. Spring’s final message, on the contrary, almost seems a capitulation to ego, attachment, and cruelty as eternal givens just barely, if at all, subject to human mitigation. It states that our condition of evil and ignorance – samsara – lives on, despite the hard lessons and best efforts of our young monk; despite the self-mastery of someone who has understood samsara’s illusional nature and is now raising his own little boy as a monk. Some might find this statement to simply be a pragmatic depiction of samsara’s prevalence. However, that interpretation does not make much sense in view of all that has gone before it in terms of suffering, guilt, struggle, seeking and attainment.

It is essential to realize – which the film fails to do – that the core Buddhist message is also that samsara can be depotentiated. Instead of expressing the hopeful Buddhist message that cruelty and self-power can be transcended, Spring’s climax practically rubs our nose in samsara, saying in essence: “See? Samsaric ignorance repeats itself in all generations.”  At this point we may justifiably ask: So? We sat through this long movie just to hear that cliched bit of common knowledge? Then why the huge build up of expectation and hopefulness, of struggle and inner peace sought/inner peace found?

In many reviews and on many websites Spring is advertised as some kind of classic Buddhist film, but I feel that this is not the case at all. Buddha said, “I teach suffering… AND the END of suffering.” This film mostly portrays the first half of Buddha’s dictum, leaving the human condition in a perpetual state of suffering, ignorance, and cruelty, while virtually ignoring the liberating second half which concerns liberation. Buddha taught that the Dharma was for all, and was the single Law that mitigates samsara.  But Spring seems to severely limit the universal thrust of Buddha’s intent by the way in which it depicts the “next generation” – in the person of the young monk’s child – as continuing on in an almost genetic line of cruelty.

“Narrow is the Way” seems to be Kim’s message – a way much narrower than the Buddha ever implied. If director Kim wants us to think that all will be well because after all the little boy is our young monk’s son and is being raised as a monk, he needs to think again. Our young monk himself was raised in a holy manner and still threw his life to the winds, even with Master-mentoring. But Spring’s final moments quite deliberately show the young monk’s child alone in the grotto, without a hint of fatherly-Masterly supervision… a dark unfolding with  an even darker implication. And that is what makes this movie a downer.


2 thoughts on “A “Buddhist” Film Review

  1. Matt

    I disagree with this, in part because I think Buddhism is subtler than this. One moment that fascinated me was the reincarnation of the elder master as a snake. When he sets himself on fire, a snake swims across the water, from the boat to the temple. He stays there, in the master’s clothes until the younger monk returns, and then remains in the temple. I wondered what it would mean for a monk to be reincarnated as a snake, and fortunately I have good access to learn. I asked a few Korean students of Buddhism and a teacher in a Korean Zen tradition. More or less, concern with money; perhaps he stole from the temple. Likewise, the rooster that hangs around the temple and the cat seen at one point in the master’s backpack are reincarnated monks. Each has karma, perhaps terrible karma. So not only have they not purified the next generation, but they haven’t gotten rid of their own karma. The Buddha taught there is no way to get rid of merited karma.

    But it is because of the elder monk’s karma that he has experience to deal with the younger monk’s suffering when he returns. It was nothing other than his own suffering that drove him to seek an end to suffering through meditation. Consider the passion with which the younger monk carves out the Heart Sutra from the wood. Buddha taught that the way to end suffering was to cut off ALL desire. So if you desire to end suffering you will have all suffering? This catch-22 is emphasized in Zen in a way I haven’t seen in other Buddhist traditions, but it is at the core of the Boddhisatva path, which is the highest attainment. The Boddhisatva refuses the final complete cessation of all suffering, Nirvana, until all sentient beings can enter Nirvana. The important thing is not for the monks to eliminate their karma, and certainly not to eliminate the karma of the world, but to find the correct use for their karma. And suffering cannot be eliminated except for finding its correct use. In words, we say this is the end of suffering, but this is only what we say in words when expressing something that cannot be expressed in words. The Heart Sutra says there is “no attainment with nothing to attain.”

    Once, asked how to bring about world peace, the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, “World peace not possible.” Pausing for effect (as I’ve heard the story), he continued, “But not necessary.” Such teaching is not uncommon in Buddhism. I’ve heard both the Dali Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn say they wouldn’t want to live in a world without suffering. Because suffering and compassion are related. To get rid of suffering is to destroy compassion. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to always say, and his students still repeat it very often, “A good situation is a bad situation, and a bad situation is a good situation.” So suffering is a very good situation! That is how you end suffering.

    The film depicts the correct use for suffering. Once karma is made, it cannot be undone, but it can be used to help this world.

  2. rennyo01 Post author

    Matt, thanks for your Comment, it has given me new things to think about, especially concerning suffering and karma in Buddhist thought.

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