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The lake isle 

Fair weather in the East, foul weather in the West

Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring has one of the most striking and unforgettable settings I've ever seen in a film. The Korean drama transpires entirely on or near a small artificial island made of wood that contains a two-man Buddhist monastery. The island--which in reality is an elaborate raft, of course--floats on a pristine lake in the middle of a primeval forest. And because it is not moored into a stationary position, its driftings seem to mimic the turnings of the cosmos, much as the lake itself mirrors the ceaseless seasonal changes of the surrounding forest.

In some ways, it is too bad that movies feel obliged to tell stories, when they could just offer us images as transcendent as this dreamlike holy island. Or to put that another way: Spring, Summer... could be experienced as a superlative experimental film if you elected simply to contemplate both the extraordinary beauties and symbolic resonance of its setting. Or again: While the film's story (which I'll get to presently) is wonderfully engaging, in some ways it only gives dramatic form to ideas that are already clearly present in the image of that idyllic lake and its floating human habitat.

Does it matter that there never was a place like this monastery? If we are looking to Spring, Summer... for evidence of a real spiritual tradition, is the film's authenticity--and thus its value--undercut by the knowledge that Kim invented the idea of a floating monastery and constructed it in a national park in northern South Korea?

Actually, I think all this does matter, but not in a negative sense. On the contrary, the film has even greater meaning as art when you consider that its central spiritual emblem was not appropriated from a real religious tradition but emerged from a single human imagination.

In recent years, Korean cinema has been recurrently touted as the next big thing on the international scene. The breakthrough hasn't happened so far, though, and I rather doubt it ever will. Though South Korea is unusual in Asia for having a sizable and still-functioning national cinema (those of many countries have simply been squashed by Hollywood), its diffident Confucian culture, which for so many centuries has existed under the shadow of more powerful neighbors, seems unlikely to produce either a trademark cinematic style or the kinds of individual auteurs that win prizes like the Palme d'Or.

I have, in other words, seen lots of Korean films of the good-not-great variety. And I'm not sure what it says that my two favorite Korean films of recent years, Spring, Summer... and Bae Yong-kyun's Why Has Bodhi-dharma Left for the East? (1989), both depict Buddhist monks in gorgeous natural settings. These movies also share something that might strike some observers as rather curious. Although both seem to convey a Buddhist sensibility, neither originated within Buddhism. In fact, the makers of both films are painters who admit to various sorts of Western influences. Kim was raised a Christian. And Bae has cited Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha (!) as a crucial influence on Bodhi-dharma.

These connections are worth pondering by anyone who might assume that the two films are "authentic" products of Buddhism, or that they are the kinds of films that Korean audiences typically see. Rather, both are art films aimed at international audiences, and the ideas they project are individual aesthetic expressions of spirituality rather than testimonials to any institutional religion.

It's noteworthy that both films stress a correlation between a Buddhist outlook and nature, because one assumes that this linkage is what appeals most to viewers, and perhaps especially those in the West. It's only in the legends of St. Francis, after all, that there's much of a Christian tradition of reverence toward nature; otherwise, the West's dominant religion has largely been notable for laying the ideological groundwork for a ferocious despoilment of the natural world. Thus it's hardly surprising that people seeking to overcome some of Christianity's and the West's most toxic effects--especially at a time of continuing environmental crisis--would look to the very different traditions of the East.

Like Bodhi-dharma, Spring, Summer... is a film of natural beauty that's not only ravishing but intrinsically meaningful. As the title indicates, Kim's story takes place over five seasons (in widely separated years) and part of the film's fascination lies in simply observing the changes in color and visual atmosphere that continually transform the exquisite diorama or forest and water that surround the floating monastery. Indeed, the film invites us into a contemplative relationship with nature which ultimately both informs and transcends its narrative.

The story begins with a monk trying to instruct the boy who inhabits the monastic isle with him. With the thoughtless cruelty of children (or make that the human race), the boy has tied rocks to various small animals; he laughs at how their movements are impeded, and doesn't suspect how his own growth is likewise harmed. A few years later, two women visit the island and the boy--now a young man--falls heedlessly into the kind of lust that breeds possessiveness, abandoning his island paradise as a result. He returns an angry and bitter criminal, still inchoately trying to learn the lessons that his master offered years earlier. Time--and nature--will teach him.

This is just a sketch of the story that Kim tells with great fluency and an almost palpable physical engagement with the extraordinary setting he has conjured. As noted, this is not a traditional tale told by a born and bred Buddhist. Rather, it is something that strikes me as far more potent in a cinematic context: a "dream of Buddhism" envisioned by an artist and offered to any viewer seeking a revival of the spirit in the lucid signatures of nature. Easily one of the most beautiful films in recent memory, it's also one of the most indelibly haunting.

There's no small irony in the fact that Spring, Summer... has arrived in the same week as Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow. Though similarly centered on the realities of nature, the two movies are otherwise almost comical opposites. Not only is the Korean film small, intelligent and poetic, it also sees nature as sacred and characterized by harmony and balance, even given the eternal presence of suffering. A Hollywood special-effects extravaganza, The Day After Tomorrow in contrast views nature as a wounded goddess about to clobber humanity for its technological transgressions.

The latter may sound like a "green" or Gaia antidote to the Christian demonization of nature noted above. But I would suggest it's basically the same old moonshine in a new bottle. Nature is again a hostile beast here, only for different reasons, and the underlying dynamic is still one of sin and apocalypse. In fact, Emmerich's film plays very much like the secular-humanist version of those Rapture/Armageddon fantasies currently selling millions of books to evangelicals who believe that Jesus is about turn them into a flock of nudist astronauts.

If you've heard that The Day After Tomorrow depicts a new ice age descending on the earth in record time--a week!--due to a sudden climate change precipitated by global warming, your one question may well be, "Does it have anything serious or illuminating to say about environmental issues, or is it just a big, dumb summer popcorn movie?"

But of course, you know the answer to that already. If you're looking to this thing for enlightenment on global warming, you might also check Van Helsing for tips on immortality. The best that can be said of Emmerich's movie is that, despite its formulaic nature, it has a couple of aspects that you'll take out of the theater with you.

One is the sequence when a hemisphere-girdling "super storm" sends a gargantuan tidal wave hurtling through New York Harbor, over the Statue of Liberty and into Manhattan. Though this comes almost an hour into the story, and we see plenty of spectacular mayhem both before and after, it is the film's one truly arresting moment, providing a timely reminder that New York remains the nation's most vulnerably iconic target for terror merchants and vengeful deities alike.

The film's other memorable feature is the comic resonance of having a character who's the Vice President of the United States and looks like Dick Cheney. This guy's against the Kyoto Protocol at the tale's beginning but ends up overseeing the evacuation of most Americans to Mexico, where he finally speaks of the "profound lesson in humility" the recent climactic catastrophe visited on the United States. Which is pretty rich, you must admit.

More subtle but not less noteworthy is the fact that by this time the Cheney character is president. What happened to the Prez? Well, I won't spell it out in detail, but let's just say that his fate reminded me of the logic of certain jungle tribes, who react to disaster by throwing their chief into the volcano. Given the state of the United States at present, even without a sudden ice age, perhaps some thought should be given to reviving that custom--say, between now and November. EndBlock

  • Fair weather in the East, foul weather in the West

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