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Where is My Zen?



Open with a picture perfect postcard, a body of water and a stand of trees, portrait of tranquility. The unruffled surface of the lake mirrors a small house centered on it, as if floating. It is a natural sanctuary, a view to which we return repeatedly throughout the film, with growing poignancy, and from discreet and meaningful distances. The image of this sacred place as it appears in the opening scene of ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring’ is like a logomark in its graphic simplicity. It fairly shouts Zen Buddhism, the sort of iconic image we as Westerners wish to carry in our hearts as an adornment to our wretchedly privileged lives full all manner of triviality, excess, fraudulence and fear. (In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition ours is appropriately called the Degenerate Age.) Perhaps we have a small garden sanctuary with a fountain or bird feeder (mind the cat!) that reminds us in some small way of a place like this. Perhaps we have bought a Buddha statue to sit there…they are sold at many garden shops, a generally pathetic homage to the “real thing” that exists somewhere heartbreakingly far off. Perhaps we squeeze out a meditation practice in a manner which suits us and fits our busy schedule. Of course we are kidding ourselves, and when no one is around to assure us we are “all right” we know we are not. Where has our Zen gone? Writer/director Kim Ki-duk lures us in to this sweet hideaway, this appealing and stately landscape, only to rip away the mask and reveal the hidden nature of Zen: the scarred up face of samsara, the real ugliness of it, animals tortured to death, small boys crying in terror and despair at their lot, fucking scenes like something out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, a wild-eyed murderer, savage beatings, and the ghost of an ex-lover frozen in ice. There is a reason why people need enlightenment, and this elegant film is the blunt answer.


picture-13It is a dream, a film more reminiscent of Bergman than most of Kim’s work. And in its resemblance to Bergman there is a certain ponderous quality to its heavily symbolic poetics. Zen is a container for a theme that Kim visits again and again in his other films: the innate wildness of human Being. Is the film an illustration of philosophical principles? Is it a fairy tale? A morality play? Kim Ki-duk is not a filmmaker who is enslaved by the logic of plot, but he returns to the theme of human violence as an outpouring of confusion upon a framework of sacred, not rational, order. I’m thinking of an image that takes on heightened importance in ‘Spring…Spring’: the doorway. Inside the Zen hut, the doorway to the boy’s sleeping mat is a frame with a door mounted on it. It is only a formality, not an actual form: there is no wall to support it. Outside, at the shore of the lake upon which the house sits, there is another portal through which all must pass. It too is freestanding, with nothing to block the way on either side. Both doorways are formal, sacred portals. In the profane world, such portals are “useless” and “irrational”. Yet at the moment our young protagonist crosses out of his room, NOT through that portal, in his lusty haste to escape the protection of his Master, to be with his lover, he has broken a wall which will never be repaired.

I can’t help but think of Bunuel in a place like this little Zen hut on the picturesque lake. What would Bunuel have done with this material? Certainly he would have chuckled at the picture of the shrewd old master, watching calmly as small animals are tortured at the hands of a naughty boy, the better to set the child up for a brutal lesson in compassion. The great difference between the function of Bunuel as an artist in a Christian culture, and Kim Ki-duk in a Buddhist culture, is that Zen allows the artist no escape, for it encompasses all escape in its embrace of emptiness, where as Christianity is built on an institutional foundation which aligned itself with empire–and form (literally, the “rock” of the Church)–so early on, that the artist has always been an outsider to it: its modern culmination in the Other-priest archetype, perfected by Dostoevsky; or the heretical artist Bunuel, for whom the church is the terrible fraudulent father who raised us to despise all patrimony. But the traction to be gained by the theoretical position of outsider and provocateur becomes a slippery place as applied to the dharma that underlies ‘Spring…Spring’. Once you start along the path, the stones you may throw just keep falling and never hit anything, except maybe your own head. And this is the ultimate joke that Kim Ki-duk tells in his stately, languid and fearsome film.

Synopsis: A Zen sanctuary hut which is at the center of a pristine mountain lake is home to a small boy and his guardian, a Zen master. The boy is cute and innocent, the master sage and powerful. It is lush Spring. We watch the boy picking herbs in the wilds around the lake, and he seems to be a good, obedient child, on the whole. But one day while playing he indulges in the wicked mischeif of tying stones to the bodies of a fish, a frog and a snake. This act of childish sadism is carried out as the Master looks on, unseen by the boy. In the night, as the boy lies sleeping, the Master ties a large stone around the child. Morning comes and the boy complains about the stone to his Master, who gently confronts him about the animal torture. He then orders the boy to go and free all the animals–telling him once they are all freed, he will untie the stone, but that if any of the animals has died, the stone will be in his heart for the rest of his life. Unsurprisingly, two of the three animals have died…the snake having suffered a particularly bloody and horrible death. The final note of the Spring chapter of this film is the weeping of the little boy whose childhood has come to a bleak end.

Summer brings a young woman into the scene seeking a cure for a cough and persistent melancholia. The boy, now a youth, is gripped with lust for her. The Master sees through this affair to its ultimate consequence, murder; but of course the youth can hear none of it, and when the girl must leave, the youth follows after her, stealing a statue of Buddha, presumably so that he can pawn it for starter cash in his new, profane, life.

Fall proves the Master’s dark prophecy and the youth returns, now a grizzled man, mad with anger, still weilding the bloodstained knife with which he ‘s murdered the young woman who had become his wife. Under the stern tutelage of the Master he is beaten mercilessly, and performs an act of penance by carving out a sutra on the deck of the little lake house with the knife that was his murder weapon. [I always assumed this was the Heart Sutra]. After he finishes the carving, the young man is taken away by two of the kindest, most compassionate police detectives you will find in film…and I can’t help but detect a note of wry sarcasm here. As Fall ends, the old Zen master performs an act of ritual suicide.

Winter comes, and with it a mature man returns from completing his prison sentence to the lake house–which is now locked up in ice. The man is committed to a program of intensive purification. In the ice he discovers the Master’s funeral pyre and he digs out the relics from the ashes of his master (probably teeth, but traditional Buddhists believe them to be pearls that are formed in the body of an enlightened being). He carves an ice sculpture of a Buddha and places the relics inside its third eye. The ghost of a woman visits him, her face covered by a blue scarf. She carries with her a baby. In the night she leaves, falls under the ice and appears to drown, but this is only a manner of showing that the wandering ghost of his murdered wife has been satisfied by delivering their child to its rightful guardian….Spring shows us the same child as a lifetime ago, this time tormenting a turtle, with heedless joy.


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