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'Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring'

2006/04/01 Source

Some critics were surprised by what they saw

Adam Hartzell (internews)

When asking my opinion about "Kill Bill 2", a good friend of mine was shocked to hear I hadn't seen either yet (and still haven't). "That surprises me since you're so into Asian film", was his response to this news. I jammed my friend's "logic" by clarifying that the Asian film references that fill "Kill Bill" are not the Asian films I seek out. This is not a slam on Tarantino, he's a wonderful collage artist. Nor is this a slam on those types of films, those films emphasize what many find pleasurable about cinema -- spectacle. But Tarantino isn't referencing Tsai, Hong, Hui, or Oshima, in his "Kill Bills" so it wouldn't be up high on my NetFlix list if I were to have one.

But many Westerners share my friend's template of what constitutes an "Asian Film", that is, some combination of martial arts, samurai, wire-fu, gangsters, violence, and soft porn. And knowing this, it is no surprise that Kim Ki-duk's films have been embraced by Western critics. Kim's "The Isle" has solidified his place in the Westernized canon of Asian films due to an incident at New York's Asian Film Festival where an audience member left a screening gagging like the main character in the film and falling to the lobby floor. Known for his creative maiming and killing off of his characters, Kim has been embraced by the same cult aficionados who anxiously await the next Miike Takashi flick.

Thus, Kim's homage to the seasons, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring" was readied for immediate acceptance by Western critics. Yet, these same critics were surprised by what they saw, saying that "Spring..". was much tamer than Kim's previous fare. But it appears the Buddhist parables -- some true to scriptures and others entirely made up -- that Kim, himself a Christian, presented in "Spring..". met other requirements of Western templates of Asian films, providing the necessary exoticism.

Taking place within a small lake with a Buddhist temple floating in the middle, we follow the seasons of an abandoned child under the initial tutelage of an elder monk as the child grows up into an adolescent, to adulthood, then finally to old age himself. Each stage and season presents particular trials for the main character. The first trial is reminiscent of another Buddhist film, "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?", where the young child learns about death through his participation in the result. But Kim adds his own images to the Buddhist film genre with a nice scene of painstakingly carving a long sutra into the porch of the floating temple that is later painted with a cat's tender tail.

Kim himself appears in the film as the enlightened monk, all bare-chested, thrusting his limbs in flashshots of his martial arts skills, leading some viewers to interpret this as exemplifying Kim's very un-Buddhist Big Ego. However, as has been noted in the Discussion Board, Kim's presence is a result of his challenging schedule and production methods. The actor that was to play the role could not, so Kim stepped in at the last minute. No ego; just practicality. (OK, maybe a little ego.)

If I were to compare "Spring..". to Korean Buddhist films that came before it, I would say I didn't enjoy it as much as "Why Has . . ". but much more than "A Little Monk". And if I were to place this within the limited number of Kim's films I've seen, I still find "The Isle" to be his masterpiece due to its disturbing take on beauty. Interestingly, although many critics have commented on this film being less violent, the torture and killings are all still there, just more subtle. And with the exception of a creative instance of self-annihilation, the killings are all forced upon animals and women. One woman in particular has her death set up as if to convey punishment for her preceding action.

Although Korean film scholar Kyung Hyun Kim, commenting before this film was completed, argues that Kim Ki-duk's misogyny is the result of the absence of female agency rather than an active misogyny, this particular female death juxtaposed against a male's contemplative -- dare I say "beautiful"? -- suicide suggests there might be more to claims of Kim's misogyny than mere absence of female autonomy. (Like, why doesn't Mom get to carve through her so-called "sin"?)

Still, there are wonderful moments in this film, such as the simple pleasure of the meditative environment Kim places us within, the floating temple, the parable-carving. Kim even includes a sexy scene of the two lovers sneaking into one another's embrace behind the sleeping eyes of the elder monk. Having wall-less rooms inside the temple where one is still required to walk in and out of a door is a wonderful touch on Kim's part, reminiscent of a stage play. Kim can be a skilled director, having shown us fascinating floating worlds in "Spring..". and "The Isle" with enough nuances in each to not be accused of repeating himself.

Still, I do hope Kim will not become the sole director associated with Korean cinema in the West. There is so much cinematic seasoning available for our visual palettes that it would be disheartening to have Kim's creative exploits into suffering and killing dominate the Western discourse of Korea's place within the constraints of the "Asian Film" category. But the strength of Kim's vision and the stubbornness of my country's mainstream media's need to lazily categorize films of the Other may leave my hopes waning.

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