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In the light of the recent stand-off between the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), who are battling for their curatorial independence, and the city of Busan, that is demanding greater control by the state; we pay tribute to the work of the BIFF, in particular, the publication of Asian Cinema 100 in October 2015. The book lists 100 important Asian films compiled by international film critics on the occasion of the BIFF’s 20th anniversary. The face-off began in 2014 when BIFF screened the documentary, Diving Bell (The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol by Lee Sang-ho and Anh Hae-ryong) that was critical of the government’s poor handling of the rescue operations of the Sewol ferry tragedy that killed 304 people. The mayor’s office and other politicians objected to the festival’s selection of the film. The freedom of expression requires that a festival be curatorially independent. This is the third of five reviews from the book. You can read about the book at www.biff.kr. By Philip Cheah.
“There is no violence without reason.”
Can cruelty be gentle? The answer is yes, and why not? Cruelty can also be innocent. In the first chapter of Kim Ki Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring (2003), a child monk plays by tying stones to a fish, frog and snake. Two of the three creatures die thus earning a lesson of Buddhist karma from the old monk: “If one of them has died, you will always carry that stone in your heart.”
Kim’s ninth film took the critics by storm. After many award-winning films of explicit violence, from The Isle (1999) to Bad Guy (2001), everyone loved the newfound contemplative serenity of Spring. The child monk becomes a teenager in Summer, when his sexual awakening takes place, and when he decides to leave the temple.
That earns his second lesson on Buddhist karma from the old monk: “Lust awakens the desire to possess. And that awakens the intent to murder.” In Fall (literally), he returns as a young man after killing his adulterous wife.
After explaining his crime of passion, the old monk explains Buddhist non-attachment: “If you consider something nice, of course, others will also like it. Sometimes you have to let go of things you like.” He is then arrested and taken away but not before carving the Heart Sutra (which dispels evil) on the temple floor.
In Winter, Kim himself plays the monk as an adult. He takes over the temple as the old monk had immolated himself. A mysterious woman leaves a baby at the temple. The rebirth is completed in Spring when the baby becomes a child monk.
Most readings of this film tend to be Buddhist but Kim himself was Christian and almost became a pastor. Perhaps the film is not essentially Buddhist and it actually isn’t a departure from Kim’s filmography either. It is merely a philosophical variation, a gently violent film.
After all, the two arresting policemen practise their gun skills in the temple. The old monk beats the young monk angrily with a heavy stick for attempting ritual suicide. Then he himself commits ritual suicide in a sensational flaming pyre.
The film is really a reflection on the nature of man, on the nature of life. The nature of man, as Kim shows in the young monk, follows the changing seasons of nature. When he sexually awakens and begins an affair with an emotionally troubled girl in the temple’s care, the old monk reflects that since the girl is happy again, perhaps it was the natural medicine for her.
The new child monk at the end of the film also begins his cruel games. This cycle makes you think about the doors in the film. They don’t serve any practical function since there are no walls. Yet everyone feels compelled to go through the doors. In the same way, the faithful feel compelled to follow their beliefs, even when they are just following the cycle of nature.
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