Korean film loses focus with muddled genres, solemn ideas

    Like the B-movie director Ed Wood — a man so in love with making movies that he really couldn’t understand how sub-standard they actually were — Korean director Kim Ki-duk is too in love with Buddhism. In his new feature, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring,” Kim badly wants to show audiences his reverence to the point that he wrote himself into the film as the “once-neophyte, now-master” monk — as if directing weren’t enough. Rather than making such a self-indulgent gesture, he should have paid more attention to the film’s message.

    True to the title, the film moves cyclically through the life of an apprentice monk under the tutelage of his senior. Like the young Siddartha, the youth learns his life lessons the hard way, experiencing the full spectrum of humanity, from the serene and fixed setting of the isolated, floating monastery to the fury and disillusionment of the removed, unseen outside.

    Though the premise sounds epic and thoughtful, the film itself is not. The idyllic, lush backdrop and characters remind viewers of the unfolding plot, but “Spring” goes nuts and starts genre-blending like amalgam-enthusiast Quentin Tarantino, borrowing elements from K-Pop melodrama, hard-boiled detective thriller, and sadly enough, even chopsocky extravaganza.

    But unlike Tarantino’s playful affection, “Spring” takes itself deadly serious. Take for example when Kim Ki-duk fills the role of the budding monk and, out of nowhere, produces a martial arts manual. Then, in images replete with mid-action freeze frames a la “Bloodsport,” he starts soaring and jump-kicking across the screen. However, his “kung fu chops” aren’t meant to be obscene and incongruous — they’re just misguided veneration.

    As a counterpoint, the film isn’t entirely awful. “Spring” draws as much as it can from the breathtaking landscape of Jusan Pond, a place where verdant, bowing forest canopies and water-logged shores possess inherent poetic force. There are also striking images that brink on the surreal: an immolated monk, whose facial features are masked with paper votives, and a fish bound with string and rock. Yet, these qualities are physical and have no spiritual significance. For “Spring,” it is the equivalent of writing out a sutra 10,000 times but not ever understanding the meaning behind it.

    In one of the last scenes of the film, the mature monk arduously climbs a precipitous mountain and, upon arriving at the peak, sees Jusan Pond in full relief, discovering the transcendental. Kim should follow his own advice for his next film: Take a step back, reassess, and abstain from any tangential, Van Damme-inspired moments.

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