The first Korean film I may have seen, as a wee nearly-29-year-old bairn, was Yongary, Monster from the Deep, the Korean Godzilla, if you like, which was almost as popular in its day as the giant Japanese lizard. Then for nearly 29 years…nothing. And then in 2003, this odd film called Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring actually turned up on some local (not even art-house) screens, and we decided to go see it.
I was actually going to talk about it last time, but that was right after Christmas and Spring is a quintessentially Buddhist film. An old monk living on an island/houseboat has a young boy for a ward. They live a simple life, but the boy sneaks off and torments small animals, and the old monk teaches him a painful lesson. In the Summer section of the film, the boy is now a young adult, and learns about the temptations and pitfalls of sex. He goes out into the world and discovers ever more and more trouble, and his own capacity for evil. The film never leaves the area with the houseboat, but the now-grown man comes back looking for peace and sanctuary against a vengeful society. In Winter, the young man has become old, returning to the house boat after learning that peace and happiness are not necessarily found in pursuit of worldly things, and in the final Spring, a new young boy is delivered to the boat, and the cycle continues.
Beautifully shot and a reminder that Korea is a beautiful place (if you’re not fighting a war there), the film is slow paced and poetic, as well as almost passive. That is, it never tries to excite sympathy: We are observers to the vicissitudes of life, but we are outside them. Thus, when the boy (and later man) does things that are wrong, we are not inclined to hate him, or weep for him, or do anything other than hope he is steered on the right path.
Compared to life in, oh, say, America, say, right at this moment, it is the antithesis. It is calm and simple and all about the current moment. It was unlike any movie I had seen up to that point.
Because I had found this film so moving, I endeavored to see the director’s next film, 3 Iron in the theater. But as often happens with foreign features, it played for a week at most (if it played at all), and I ended up seeing it on cable. I was similarly blown away by the story of Tae-suk, a strange outsider who has what is the most demeaning job in Korea (next to cleaning saunas): Posting flyers on people’s doors. But what Tae-suk does is go back to the neighborhood where he posted his flyers and see which ones weren’t removed or discarded—and then he breaks into the house or apartment and crashes there for the night.
While he’s there he does things like use their cookware, food and even toothbrushes, but he also fixes up the place, especially any broken devices. He’s never been caught at this, as far as we can tell. But one night he does it to a very nice house which turns out not to be empty: A woman, Sun-hwa is there hiding from her abusive husband, and things shake out that Tae-Suk basically beats the tar out of the husband (when he comes home) by launching golf balls at the guy using his own 3 iron (which he then steals).
Tae-suk and Sun-hwa go on their own road adventure, posting flyers and breaking into houses until the vengeful husband comes to track them down. While Spring has elements of what you might call magical realism—as Spring goes along, we begin to wonder how the old monk ends up in such perfect vantage points to view things when the boy has taken the boat which is the only means to get off the island—3 Iron takes its metaphorical conceit, a young man figuratively invisible to society, and turns it literal.
It’s not magical realism in the western sense—where a momentary non-flashy, even dubiously legitimate suspension of the physics provides a plot resolution or advancement. This isn’t “the magic was inside you all along” get-out-of-jail-free card-type bromide. Tae-suk, while likable, isn’t a particularly heroic figure except somewhat in his defense of Sun-hwa, who herself is more tragic than heroic (we piece together that she’s married the wealthy man because he supports her parents). Their relationship is interesting, and the resolution of the films is downright spooky.
There’s not a lot of talking in either of these films. In 3 Iron, the lead characters don’t talk at all for the first half-hour or more. And they are very measured in pacing, with the (never formally trained) director eschewing any temptation to sentimentalize or sensationalize. But to me, they represent an amazing and relatively rare use of cinema.
Kim Ki-duk directed over two dozen films in his 20 year career without ever really approaching this level again, as far as I know. He was #metoo’ed a couple of years ago and fled to Latvia when his prospects in Korea dried up. (I have no comment on the veracity of the claims made against him, but he was an indie in his country and I have no doubt protection extends to some more than others, as it is everywhere. I would also point out that he himself plays the criminal adult pursued by the law in Spring.) Kim died last month, a couple of weeks before his 60th birthday, apparently of the coronavirus, out-living his namesake by only a few years.
His directing namesake—Kim Ki-duk, no relation—died a few weeks before his 83rd birthday in 2017. This Kim, however, directed cheesy soapers and, most famously, the giant monster movie Yongary.