SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER…AND SPRING (2003)
What is the sound of one mind bending? Here is a film that may well answer that question.
This is a very cool movie. We normally associate a plot full of twists and turns with something in the Hitchcockian style, such as a man-on-the-run thriller starring Cary Grant or Harrison Ford. So, being unable to guess what happens next is not the usual hallmark of an art film that is told largely in static, meditative master shots and, to top it off, takes place in and around a holy monk’s temple that is floating in the middle of a secluded lake. But, provided one can rewire one’s brain out of its predilection for thirty-seven edits per minute and sound design that seeks to most effectively convey the sound of a truck transforming into a cyborg, there are a lot of rewards to be had in this quiet, strange, elegantly simple and, yes, in its own way, suspenseful morality tale from Korea.
The five seasons referenced in the title take us from one man’s boyhood under the tutelage of a Buddhist master, to his straying from the teachings and, finally, to his return. In the film’s storyline, at least ten years pass between each season, and therein lies writer/director Ki-duk-Kim’s ingenious evocation of suspense. As the events prior to each change of season become more and more ominous, our imagining of what might have filled the gaps in between fuels an unconscious sense of urgency. We marvel at how this gently-made film can be taking us to so many unexpected places.
Little can be said about most of the story’s events without depriving the viewer of some rich discoveries. It begins in spring as a boy monk (Jae-kyeong Seo) receives a harsh lesson in compassion from his master, the Old Monk (Yeong-su Oh) after he is caught taunting defenseless animals. Summer opens ten years later, as the boy, now a young adult (Young-min Kim), becomes obsessed with an ill young woman (Yeo-jin Ha) whose mother has left her with the old monk for a regimen of holistic healing. His obsession leads to passion, which, in turn, leads to estrangement from his master and a rejection of his ways. Fall adds ten more years to his story, as he returns under troubling circumstances. Winter finds him back yet again, in a haunting, wordless sequence involving a new patient whose weeping face is covered in cloth, presumably to avoid passing her condition onto the little baby she has also brought with her. It is a surreal, miniature tour-de-force. Finally, spring brings with it an eternal return: more, as the wise man said, I cannot say, but director Kim’s uncomplicated yet profound message about the cycle of life speaks volumes and will produce a sigh of recognition, beauty and bitterness all at once.
Each season opens with the visual of opening doors. The doors are painted with images of ancient warriors, and the doorway is the portal between the mainland wooded area and the mysterious lake on which the monk’s house floats. A small rowboat (also with painted images on its side-the film revels in such details) is what gets the monk and the boy from the house to the woods, where they pick healing herbs or go on a pilgrimage. These woods are also another kind of entryway, through which the outside world is able to seek out the monk and his wisdom. The old monk’s face is fascinating to watch, and, in fact, each time the film breaks from its painterly compositions of the lake and its rocky outcroppings to dwell on a human visage, we are pulled even further into its spell.
Patience is required to let the film do its work on your psyche, but the patience pays off in unforgettable images like the old monk painting hundreds of Asian characters onto his dock with a cat’s tail dipped in ink, and then commanding his pupil to carve each character out with a knife as a penance for his wrongdoing. Twice, the student is tasked with walking a great distance while burdened with a heavy stone tied to his waist. And the shots of the floating monk’s house taken from a distant hilltop (the viewpoint of the student’s several symbolic treks to the other side) are breathtaking.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring gets under your skin. Stay with this exceptional jewel of a movie, my child, and your soul will find much to feed upon.
Read more reviews of the Best Films You’ve Never Seen here.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981)
Steve Martin, Herbert Ross and Dennis Potter use the musical to make art that hits where it hurts
What if there was a musical that was more like one of the tough-minded independent directorial visions of late 1970’s cinema, a musical that was more like a film noir, a musical that plunged the viewer straight into a troubling dreamscape of metaphors for all the lies a nation can tell itself in order to survive? That musical has happened, though it came and went over twenty-five years ago, and it was called Pennies From Heaven. With perhaps only Cabaret as a predecessor, but distinct from that film in its strange hybrid vision (the musical numbers are all fantasy sequences and not part of the story in the traditional sense), Pennies hit screens in 1981 and baffled audiences who were fresh off Steve Martin’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ and starring role in The Jerk, as well as director Herbert Ross’s more widely known work on charming Neil Simon romantic comedies like The Goodbye Girl and California Suite. MGM, the studio known for its musicals, chose to make this their first one in almost thirty years. With all this in mind, nothing could have prepared filmgoers for the work of art at which cast and crew were clearly at the top of their game making—an excursion into a Depression-Era America fraught with broken dreams and man’s inhumanity to man. Even today, one needs to settle into this astonishing filmmaking achievement by buckling in for a bumpy emotional ride.
The script is a pared-down version of Brit TV phenom Dennis Potter’s multi-part series of the same name that had Bob Hoskins in Steve Martin’s role. Potter wrote the screenplay and was nominated for an Oscar for it, though apparently unhappy with the condensation. But Ross’s film is so well done that it comes across as its own streamlined, cogent and just-as powerful entity. Martin seems an unlikely replacement for Hoskins, but he does a terrific job as Arthur Parker, a deluded traveling sheet music salesman based in Chicago, who develops a wandering eye as a way of lashing out at his wife’s stultifying sexual repression and refusal to satisfy him. Jessica Harper is nothing short of gut-wrenching as Joan Parker, and the representation of the expectations regarding male and female sexuality that grew out of the late 1970’s are smartly explored through her painful marriage to Arthur in this decades-earlier setting.
On an out of town jaunt to sell the latest song sheets to retailers, Arthur is instantly smitten with prim schoolmarm Eileen (Bernadette Peters, in an assured and understated performance of great depth), and pursues her, claiming to be unmarried. Not surprisingly, he then deserts her after making her pregnant. When she is fired from her one-room schoolhouse as a result, and enters a life of prostitution (courtesy of Christopher Walken’s Tom, chilling in just one key scene), Arthur begins to see her as the sexually open creature he has always wanted and she, for her part, cannot deny her ongoing attraction to him. It is messy and complicated in a way hardly any films, let alone musicals, ever dare to be. Further complications come via a homeless man whom a smug Arthur treats to a meal (the haunting Vernel Bagneris, who treats us to the title song in a wondrous set piece) but who ends up implicating Arthur in the crime that proves his undoing. In the end, Arthur becomes a hunted man not only because of the murder he is suspected of committing, but because of his reportedly deviant sexuality.
But, of course, it’s his own fault. Martin’s Arthur gives us a vision of our country at its worst: the embodiment of a bumbling, heedless fool, carelessly hurting others, driven by childish desires and subject to change at the slightest whim. Adding insult to injury, Arthur routinely professes his belief that popular songs tell the truth, and that he has been waiting his entire life for them to come true. In a neat little bit of symbolism, the film’s opening shot depicts Arthur in bed, literally not wanting to wake up. He never does, of course, and, the script seems to be saying, we never have either.
The integration of the song and dance sequences in Pennies From Heaven involves a startling break from the film’s action, as opposed to the kind of further embellishment provided by most musical numbers. At key moments during scenes, the characters not only burst out into song (as is the convention), but do so by lip-synching the actual records of the 1920’s and 30’s, sometimes with the genders reversed. It is a wildly imaginative spin on tradition, but also provides a sad undercurrent, as we begin to see that these tunes represent not what the characters are really feeling, but what they cannot feel, and must funnel into popular music in the hopes of coping with the longing they never express. As with every other aspect of this still rather groundbreaking work, it requires a full investment of our psyches.
And it is evident in every frame that everyone behind the scenes made that same investment during production that they would require of us at screening time. From Gordon Willis’ rough-hewn photography (including a couple of dead-on duplications of Edward Hopper paintings) to Richard Marks’ seamless editing to Philip Harrison’s spot-on (and unpretentious) production design, along with of course Danny Daniels’ choreography and the perfectly modulated performances, here is a film that grabs and does not let go. And, even now, it resonates in many ways, not the least of which has to do with a nation in the grip of economic hard times. Sometimes the most powerful films are powerful because they ask us to take a hard look at ourselves and call it entertainment. Pennies From Heaven does that, but it does not do so lightly. It gives you lasting art as a reward. As its title suggests, it pays off big time.
Read more reviews of the Best Films You’ve Never Seen here.