Is the quest for good a road to evil? Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring
Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring begins with a wise Buddhist monk and a small, innocent boy, his pupil. A few years later, a young woman arrives to be healed, and chaos is unleashed: the woman and the boy – now an adolescent – copulate, and the boy follows her to the city, abandoning the monk’s lone dwelling on a raft that floats on a mountain lake. A few years later, the boy, now a man in his early 30s, returns, pursued by two detectives. He has killed the woman out of jealousy, thus realising the prophecy of the old monk, who had warned him that love for a woman leads to attachment, which ends in the murder of the object of attachment. The first thing to do here is to take the film’s cycle more literally than it takes itself: why does the young man kill his love when she abandons him for another man? Why is his love so possessive? An average man in secular life would have accepted it, however painful it would have been for him.
So: what if it is his very Buddhist-monk upbringing that made him do it? What if a woman only appears as an object of lust and possession, which ultimately provokes a man to kill her, from the Buddhist position of detachment? So that the whole natural cycle that the film deploys, murder included, is internal to the Buddhist universe?
In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel wrote that evil resides in the very gaze that perceives evil all around itself. Does Kim Ki-duk’s film not provide a perfect case of this insight? Evil is not just man’s possessive lust; evil is also the very detached gaze of the monk, which perceives possessive lust as evil. This is what, in philosophy, we call reflexivity: the standpoint from which we condemn a state of things can be itself part of this state of things.
[Appeared in The Guardian on April 14th 2015.]