A pearl has no meaning to the pig, says South Korean director and writer Kim Ki Duk. His 2002 film Spring Summer Autumn Winter …and Spring is an anecdotal portrayal of time. Phrases, movements, events and conflicts circle back on themselves. People are shown as unwitting participants in a world with its own logic. Buddhist and mystic symbolism underpin and overlay the action. We learn about the characters through their actions, not what they say. The film requires little dialogue to convey its meaning.
In the opening sequence a young boy teases a frog, a snake and fish by tying a rock to them. The little creatures struggle. His grandfather – we can only assume they’re related – watches the kid torture the animals. That night while the kid is asleep the grandfather ties a rock to the boy. When he wakes up he’s distressed and is told the rock can be removed once he has seen to it that the rock is removed from the frog, snake and fish. If, by this time, any of the creatures have died then the boy will live with this burden. The boy drags the rock around the great lagoon where they live. The frog is alive. The Fish is alive. The snake has died overnight. The boy is distraught. The boy has a heavy heart.
If the grandfather had not disciplined the boy then we can assume he would have continued on in life thinking torturing animals was okay. We have seen already that it is in the boys nature to be cruel. Discipline is a way of altering that nature.
Later on in the film, the grandfather paints the heart sutra on the deck of the house that floats on the lagoon. The young boy, now a man, has returned, a fugitive after having fled the home with a girl who was visiting. Viewers do not witness this, but the young man murdered the woman one night when she sleeps with another man. The boy returns home and when detectives find him the grandfather requests that before he leaves the boy carve out the heart sutra with a knife.
The rationale of the film dictates the Buddhists wishes are respected and the detectives wait all day until the boy has finished carving. Only then can the boy begin healing his heavy heart, that began with the murder of the snake, some fifteen years before the murder of the woman. The return of the heart motif shows that the master played a small part in the boys downfall. As Phillip Larkin wrote: Your parents, they fuck you up, even if they don’t mean to, they do.