The Burden of Guilt and the Long View of God: Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (2003)

The Burden of Guilt and the Long View of God: Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring first published by Little White Lies, as part of a series of short responses to the question ‘Can films change the world?’.

In the centre of a remote lake surrounded by mountains, there is a floating world: a temple that is also a microcosm, where, in chapters corresponding to the seasons in rotation, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring tracks a boy going through the stages of life, under the eyes of his Master, of Buddha, and (naturally) of us. Along this cyclical journey, the apprentice commits various wrongs – acts of cruelty, lust, murder and sacrilege. Though conventionally punished, the apprentice must also drag the burden (both a literal millstone and a more metaphorical weight) of his misdeeds for the rest of his life, on the steep, slippery path to becoming a Master himself.

Kim Ki-duk’s film is a parable of sin and suffering, and of wisdom acquired through misstep. Its broad frame – Buddhist rather than Christian – has no room for redemption or forgiveness, but plenty for contemplation and gradual, hard-earned transformation. Kim invites us, like the mountain-top Buddha, to see a wider panorama wherein human transgressions, though neither overlooked nor indeed excused, form part of a bigger picture. Accordingly this long, unflinching view of male errancy is nuanced, refusing either to rush to judgment, or to reduce a man merely to his crimes. 

Kim is expressly implicated in this picture by himself playing the film’s apprentice in his self-abasing adulthood – as though the filmmaker is caught up in the same life struggle as his unequivocally transgressive protagonist. Having recently been accused of on-set bullying, abuse and even rape in real life, Kim now comes with, putting it mildly, heavy baggage of his own. So as we watch this man trying to transcend his sins, that mountain lake’s waters may now seem muddier – but watch we should, unwaveringly, with a critical distance that neither ostracises nor exonerates.

© Anton Bitel