starring Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko, Natalya Vdovina
screenplay by Vladimir Moiseyenko & Aleksandr Novototsky
directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev
SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER... AND SPRING
starring Yeong-su Oh, Ki-duk Kim, Young-min Kim, Jae-kyeong Seo
written and directed by Ki-duk Kim
by Walter Chaw Andrei Tarkovsky by way of Terrence Malick, Andrei Zvyagintsev's shockingly assured debut The Return (Vozvrashcheniye) approaches the primitive through the sublime, finding the first testament of human existence in the bland, devouring indifference of the natural and providing the moribund Russian film industry its first real voice in a generation. While it's impeccably acted and scripted with a respect for the spaces before, after, and between, what astounds about the picture is Zvyagintsev's patient, painterly eye, which fills the void in world cinema left by Takeshi Kitano since the first half of Brother and offers a voice of simple, audacious purity that fashions of the cinema something like a cold blue rapier. The Return is as good a film debut (and in almost the same way) as Malick's Badlands: an intimate character study and an archetypical road trip that fashions a crystalline portrait of a very specific time and place that, nonetheless, shines a light on the landmarks of a collective interior. Zvyagintsev talks about boys needing their father and couches it in terms poetic and mesmerizing.
Opening on a thin needle of land as a group of boys pressure one another to dive off a tower into the stormy drink, the picture introduces us to young Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov), who's afraid to take the plunge, and his older brother Andrey (Vladimir Garin), moved by mates to call his sibling a "chicken." It's painful in a very true way, in a way that only teasing and exclusion in childhood can be, and the exquisite ache of that torment segues into a ruder taunt as their father (Konstantin Lavronenko), gone without explanation for twelve years, shows up at their concrete flat to take them on a fishing weekend. The roots of their behaviour, of Vanya being mule stubborn and fearful, of Andrey desperate for approval and inclusion, locate themselves in the lack of this parental figure. But the grace of The Return is that it doesn't paint the father as a villain in spite of his rough attempts at discipline and even though our sympathies are strongly allied with the children. (Nor are the child characters allowed to seem precious in their revolts and rituals.) It's hard to imagine that there will be a better film this year in terms of performance (in a heartbreaking synchronicity, Garin died in a drowning accident not long after shooting), sound design (the aural artistry of Andrei Khudyakov accompanies a remarkable score by Andrei Dergachyov), and direction.
The film reminds of Night of the Hunter in every way that matters, but separates itself in the idea that the roads father and sons travel into the wilderness are rails predetermined rather than possible courses overgrown and wild. Zvyagintsev expresses the idea in repeated shots of the trio's battered car bisecting the verdant landscape on stark roads and, in one dazzling composition, a small boat puttering along a beam of a clouded sun refracted off the surface of the ocean. He seems to suggest that there is no other resolution to the tragedy of fathers and sons than unimaginable loss, that there is no other option for them than misunderstanding and desperate feints and starts at fruitless reconciliation. In pursuit of higher truths, The Return deals in small details, the whole of it so resonant that an epilogue of disquieting snapshots functions as poignant--and stark--counterpoint to the delicate narrative obliqueness of what's come before. Questions remain unanswered (as they are wont to do in the family reserve), and of that which recommends the picture, its faith in its audience and the power of its visual presentation are the most obvious.
In that sense, Korean Kim Ki-duk's personal religious odyssey Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (hereafter Spring) succeeds as well, and brilliantly, in telling its story with a bare minimum of dialogue and embellishment while recognizing, too, that nature is the first testament of the human condition. Its devotion to predestination differs from The Return's in its sense of joy in its cycles, seeing the evolution of an individual from innocence through cruelty, love, and wisdom as a ritual as inevitable as the progression of the seasons. Viewed from a position of spiritual remove, life unfolds as a dance of intricate, carefully choreographed steps that is only completely knowable at dance's end. Ki-duk's and cinematographer Baek Dong-hyeon's visuals are magnificent, with the entire film unfolding on an island in the middle of an impossibly placid lake, untouched and theoretically untouchable by the outside world as an old monk teaches a child what it means to be human.
What transpires there isn't prelapsarian, however, as the undercurrent of cruelty that defines the eternal struggle in the human beast is a topic familiar to Ki-duk, whose last film released in the United States, the remarkable The Isle, functions as a telling companion piece to Spring. Also set on an island, also dealing in an oblique way with how sin follows us like an odour or a stain and how nature is the only reliable guide for the ways of man and beast, The Isle is, in its explicit gore and sex, as blunt in its way as Spring's simple causality. There is sex and death in Spring, cruelty and even sadism in the relationship between the characters and their charges. Misidentified as gentle, the picture approaches conflict in a better way.
It's an act of great humanism to allow humanity its flaws, to compare the beauty of Spring's settings to that of an individual, or to recognize that there is a heart of darkness and nihilism seething in each. Balance isn't a denial of evil, it's an acceptance of it as an equal in embracing the shadow as it were, thus in each of Spring's five segments (and The Return is similarly segmented by days of the week), one finds equal time allotted to corruption and redemption. The aspirations of the mind, the limitations of the body, all of it is re-absorbed into the loam at the moment of revelation. The end of the trip is the end of purpose, and the shared genius of The Return and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is that they remind of how important it is to hope, to accept disappointment, to aspire perhaps to fail, and to nurse that perseverance and strength, if only in order to appreciate the music of living. Originally published: May 7, 2004.