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Kim Ki-duk seems both too amiable to be a monster and too earthy to be a mystic. As he concludes a day of interviews with Washington journalists, the 44-year-old Korean writer-director mostly looks bored.
Kim, who has made 10 features in eight years, earned a scary reputation with 2000’s brutal The Isle and a philosophical one with the new Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring. The former movie, an account of a violent sexual relationship that includes some nasty business with fishhooks, caused many viewers to faint, vomit, or bolt.
“I understand that many who watched my film talked a lot about it and debated a lot between themselves,” Kim says. “I’m not particularly interested in those controversies. I don’t make any film to generate controversy.”
He does, however, admit to “the brutality of the images.” “‘How can a human being do such a thing?’ is probably the most common response,” he says. “Some people have said, ‘[The movie] has ethical problems. Maybe the director is a crazed person, a psycho.’”
Kim pauses: “I’m not a psycho. I just expressed something I saw in society.”
Spring, Kim’s first movie to get a wide American release, has elicited a very different reaction, beguiling audiences with its lovely nature imagery and Buddhist parable of acceptance and renewal. “I wanted to show that I’m not a psychotic person,” he says. “That’s why I made this film—to show a different side of me.”
Yet, he adds, “This film and the previous films are different in some sense, but the difference is minor. In [Spring], I show human beings in long angles and extreme wide shots. In my previous films, I placed the camera closer to the people. Those close-ups revealed their brutality. But my previous films and this film are basically the same.”
Wearing a black baseball cap and a maroon T-shirt with an ABA Sports logo, Kim slouches on a sofa in—where else?—the Four Seasons Hotel. As an interpreter translates his responses, the filmmaker distractedly pages through an art catalog and a copy of Washingtonian. Periodically, he snags a morsel from a fruit plate, then wipes his fingers on his tan cargo pants.
The product of a working-class background and an art-school education—he studied painting for two years in Paris—Kim works instinctively. Spring was shot over the course of a year, to capture the changing seasons, in a South Korean national park. The director worked from a treatment rather than a full script, inventing things as he went along. Among the elements he contrived was the story’s entire religious context.
“I’m not a Buddhist,” acknowledges Kim, who was brought up as a Christian. “This film is not about Buddhism as a religion. I didn’t study Buddhism at all. If anything looks like Buddhism, it just came naturally. I don’t differentiate the Korean way of thinking from Buddhism. They are almost naturally linked together. There are some rituals in the film, but they are not originally Buddhist rituals at all. I made them up.”
In Korea, the director notes, “some people say that Spring, Summer is a rather Christian film. But for me, all religions are the same. My next film, Samaritan Girl, has Christian themes and motifs, but I don’t think it’s a Christian film. The important thing is that each individual needs some kind of comfort and courage from somewhere. That’s why we need religion.”
Kim characterizes Spring as “just a story of human beings. The film is not about an individual. This story can be applied to many other people, almost all human beings rather than just one or the other monk. The temple could be just an ordinary house. And the clothes they wear could easily just be everyday clothes.”
The film’s striking principal location is a small temple that floats in the middle of a lake. Not only was the temple constructed for the film, but it wasn’t based on any particular model. “It just came from my imagination,” Kim says. “My own idea was that the temple represented the director, myself. And the water surrounding the temple is the world.”
The temple and the monks who inhabit it seem to exist outside of time, so the story is revealed as contemporary only when visitors arrive. “My first principle in making the film was to use just one location, the temple,” Kim says. “But I needed some opposite images to the nature. And these people from the cities represent that. So that’s why I had the scene when the cops actually shoot their pistols. That is a stark contrast.”
In the first of the movie’s five chapters, a young novice learns compassion from a veteran monk. As a teenager, however, the novice is overcome by lust for a young woman who comes to the temple to be cured of an unexplained malady. The novice leaves with the woman but later returns, having committed a terrible crime. As part of his atonement, the monk carves a sutra—a Buddhist scripture—on the deck of the floating temple.
The text is written in Chinese characters, not the Korean alphabet, and derived from what Kim calls “one of the bibles of Buddhism. It was written originally in Chinese characters. Basically, the meaning of the text is that human life is about pain [and] the important thing is that we have to deal with it, that we have to embrace the pain in ourselves rather than try to escape from it.”
The filmmaker admits that most Koreans probably couldn’t read the text, which isn’t subtitled for American viewers, either. “I don’t think the particular characters are important in the sequence,” he says. “But many Korean people understand Buddhism, so even though they can’t read it, many people understood what it means. I believe that even the Western audience, even though they cannot read those characters, probably they can understand, just by feeling.”
Only one character used in the film is subtitled: the ideogram for “closed,” which the old monk covers his facial features with before ending his life. “It is not a human suicide,” Kim explains. “It is simply shutting the door.”
If the monk’s departure is not precisely suicide, it’s because he’s not exactly human. Early in the film, the young novice rows the temple’s only boat to shore, where he gets into some mischief. Mysteriously, the old monk then appears on the bank to observe the boy’s actions. “My intention was to show that he’s not human,” says Kim. “He represents something like God, or nature itself, rather than an individual human being. He is a sort of medium between human and God, to guide people closer to God. I believe we need that kind of character.”
Ultimately, the novice becomes a middle-aged monk, played by Kim himself. He took the role, he recalls, after the actor he chose refused to cut his hair for the part. “Another reason is, in that winter sequence, the important character was the nature itself, not the human beings. So it was not a big deal who played that particular role. And I didn’t have much time because there was only a brief moment when there was snow and the lake was frozen. I had to finish the film in that moment, so I had to play it myself.”
In addition to the natural setting that’s crucial to the movie’s atmosphere, there are also small but significant roles for snakes, fish, a turtle, a rooster, and a cat. “My idea is that humans and animals are the same,” Kim says. “They have the same image. When the old monk dies, the snake comes and guards his clothes. That indicates that a snake can be a guardian of a human and an animal that can understand a human.”
Snakes are not esteemed in traditional Korean culture, the director notes. When the monk warns the boy to watch for them, “it is not an order. It is more like a question—‘Is the snake really a dangerous thing or an evil thing?’ I want to change the concept because usually the snake represents something evil. But it’s not—that’s just our perception.”
“I didn’t make this film as a puzzle,” he adds. “Although I made the film, I can’t explain every single detail. My basic approach was my feeling.”
Still, the director does offer some guidance to potential viewers—and it sounds altogether Buddhist: “I don’t think there is any correct answer,” he says. “If you see it any one way, that’s right.” —Mark Jenkins