Above: The master and one of his many pets he keeps during the film.
Nature as the Teacher: The Sound of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
(originally written for UC Berkeley, April 2019)
By Jeremy Snowden
There is a certain silence in nature many modern American films have had trouble capturing. It seems in Hollywood we want to outdo nature with sound design and special effects rather than let it speak for itself. We see this in movies like Avatar where although a large tree is what is the heart and energy of the Navi people, we don’t hear them with the tree by themselves, the leaves rustling, or someone rubbing on the texture of the bark; it is always accompanied by music or an incoming helicopter. With Ki-Duk Kim’s film Spring, summer, fall, winter — and spring, nature is given a voice. In this film, sound, especially naturalistic sound is a key component in creating the spiritual atmosphere in which the viewers are transported into.
The serenity and enigmatic quality of this world is one that draws characters back through each season, just like geese that leave in the Autumn and come back in the Summer. The natural processes of the seasons represent the chapters in this unnamed buddhist’s life, as characters come and go. These themes are chiefly established through the use of sound.
Using seasons as a way to illustrate transformation is not a new concept to Buddhism or filmmaking. The Dharma Teacher Chongsan, one of the practitioners of Won Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism popular in Korea, inscribed in an epitaph to his master Sot’aesan, “As the four seasons keep rotating and the sun and the moon alternate illuminating in the universe, myriad things attain the way of coming into being.” In this statement the cycles of the seasons, sun and moon are paralleled with maturity — which is what the main character, whose name we are never given, experiences in this film.
The ambient sound of the film, including the wind, water, snakes is a tool used to emphasize the rhythms of the story, and introduce the Buddhist themes of the natural setting. Jusan Pond, where the film was set, is not just a beautiful backdrop to the film but a recurring reminder of the cyclical and fixed quality of nature, contrasted with the impermanence of the characters.
For instance, when the film first begins we hear the creaking of old wooden doors, fish swimming in a fountain followed by a wooden instrument being played by the old master. Already the ambient sounds have cued us into the nature of the setting. We can tell that this is an old area, and that not much has changed for a long time. We get the sense that this is a regular day for the occupants of the lake. Other than the ambient sound, there is traditional music sung by Kim Young-im but it is always sparse. The richness of the singer’s voice is used later to underscore the main characters transcendence on top of the mountain, where no ambient sound could create an equivalent.
By playing up the sounds of the floating hut’s surroundings and turning down the orchestrated score, an atmosphere of tranquility is formed, which often exists despite the action contradicting this. Such as drownings, a murder, guns and much more.
The sounds heard from life aboard the hut can even have hypnotizing qualities. The detective’s pursuit towards the main character is interrupted by his own spiritual practice of Prajnaparamita Sutra, which is part of Mahayana Buddhism. From here we can assume this is the faith the monks follow. They are convinced in part by the eldest monk to stay and let the main character finish, but also by the quality of the setting. The mountain has a way of funneling the sound, and eliminating all sounds of the real, or industrial world of cars, construction and people. Try as they must the detectives cannot help but give in to the calmness of the setting, helped in part by the soft sound of the rippling water. They even talk about how quiet it is once they are there, eventually falling asleep as they are waiting for the main character. When one of the detective awakens he even helps hold a candle for the main character as he finishes carving his sutra. Here is an example of the ambient sound acting as a character. Without saying a word it helped, along with the master, to spare the life of the main character with it’s undeniable simplicity and tranquility.
During the climax of the movie, ambient sound becomes prevalent as a character again. The pain of losing a loved one that the main character feels is maximized by the fact that he fell into the exact trap that the master had forewarned. “Lust leads to desire for possession, and possession leads to murder.”
During moments of great crisis in real life there is no perfect soundtrack to underscore the feelings, no perfect lyrics to represent the pain. The pain is unique, and so the quality of the sound should reflect that. The wide valley in which the hut sits creates a perfect acoustic instrument and visual metaphor for the sorrow and emptiness felt by the main character. Slamming his hands into the water, and wailing like a child is heard without a musical score and naturally how one would expect the sound echoed in that valley environment. The viewer is a bystander to his pain just like the master who stands upon the hill and watches. The moment is witnessed as it would be in reality, not made artificial by music from a soundtrack.
One of the last examples I will outline here is seen when the monk returns to the floating hut for the final time. It is winter now and each time he returns he is welcome by the same creaky doors, but this time he is welcomed into a world that is quiet and still. Since the water has frozen, there is no longer the soft sound of the ripples, or distant waterfalls. Here the environment symbolizes the emotional state of the character – he has finally found peace and stillness. He is even able to recognize his master’s passing without anger, but with a bow that shows he has accepted the cycle of life.
The final moments of the film where the character ascends the steep mountain in only a pair of worn pants, a stone on his back and a buddha, it is clear he has lessened his karmic retribution through discipline and meditation. In this scene, the director chooses to bring back music to underscore the character’s journey. The mountain is a clear symbol of something powerful, that has stood the test of time. As Jack Kerouac said in The Dharma Bums, “…a mountain is a buddha. think of the patience, hundreds of thousands of years just sittin there bein perfectly perfectly silent and like praying for all living creatures in that silence and just waiting’ for us to stop all our frettin and foolin.” The mountains, like all facets of nature, carry in them a wisdom that all of us can learn from.
Exploring the wisdom of these facets of nature through the emphasis of ambient sound is a unique and effective way of storytelling. Spring is a deep and gripping film, which epitomizes the expression “silence is golden” and leaves viewers searching for more – more compassion, more philosophy and more awareness in recognizing the power of silence.