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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter....Spring


Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter....Spring is a South Korean fiction film, directed by Kim Ki-duk,  and released in 2003. Subtitled in English but with sparse dialogue, it is 102 minutes in length. It is set almost entirely in a tiny Buddhist monastery that is located in the middle of a lake, within the remote forests of Korea, and follows a Buddhist monk through the cycle of his life. The exquisite cinematography envelopes the viewer in the beautiful natural scenery of the lake as the five seasons in the title transform the landscape over the five sections of the film that cover the different stages of the monk’s life.

In its portrayal of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, this film offers the viewer an insight into the techniques of focusing on the moment and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgement, both of which are now being used in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (a therapy that was developed from the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme of Jon Kabat-Zinn) as well as in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. I would argue that the process of watching this film actually offers the viewer some experience of mindfulness practice. Whilst the intricate details of many actions are played out in real time, the viewer is forced to follow the story at a much slower pace than we are often accustomed to doing. 

The Film

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter....Spring begins with the opening of a wooden gate which stands by the landing stage on the edge of the lake. The crossing of this threshold is repeated at the start of each season or segment of the film. A young boy is living with a Buddhist monk on a small monastery in the middle of the lake, where everything that they need for daily life must be brought to the island by rowboat. The seasons in the title represent the ages of this young boy as he develops from childhood, through his teenage years, to a 30 year old man fleeing from a crime, then a middle aged monk and finally as an older monk who repeats the cycle when he takes care of a baby boy abandoned by its mother.

In the first section of the film there are some wonderful examples of how the young apprentice is taught empathy and compassion. On one occasion, after the master finds him tormenting a fish, a frog and a snake by tying stones to them, the master ties a small rock to the apprentice’s back at night and tells him that he must carry this burden until he can free the creatures that he tormented. The lesson that the apprentice learns from this teaching stays with him for the rest of his life, represented visually as a repeating motif throughout the film. As a teenage apprentice, he encounters a young woman brought to the monastery by her mother, who is seeking help from the older monk for symptoms suggestive of depression in her daughter. As the young woman begins to improve, romance develops between the two teenagers and the apprentice is consumed with lust. When the young woman departs the monastery, the apprentice cannot bear the separation and leaves the monastery too, stealing a statue of the Buddha from his master.

In the following chapter, the master catches sight of a newspaper report telling that the apprentice has fled after killing his wife. Soon, the apprentice arrives back at the monastery seeking asylum. What follows is an interesting scene in which the older monk tries to manage the young man’s anger and help him to process the unbearable feelings that he is experiencing. As this is in process, the police arrive at the monastery to arrest the young man. After a period in which we imagine he has served his sentence, and the older monk has ended his life in a ritual manner, the middle-aged apprentice returns to inhabit the monastery alone and to devote himself to his practice. In this section of winter, he seems to use physical exertion as a means of processing the things that he has done wrong in his past. It is in this cold winter landscape, in which the lake is literally frozen over, that a mother, who conceals her identity, delivers her baby boy to the monastery for the cycle of master and apprentice to begin again.

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is increasingly used in therapeutic practice and for anyone interested in learning about mindfulness, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter....Spring offers the viewer a useful resource. The film gives some very good examples of the therapeutic benefit that can come from complete absorption in a task and how this may reduce anger and arousal. It demonstrates the struggles that people may face during their lives in dealing with the obstacles that they encounter and shows the positive effect that acceptance of a situation may have on an individual. But the stunning setting of this film also gives us the ability to understand the role of stillness and focus in meditative practice by offering the viewer a chance to become totally absorbed in the breathtaking natural beauty of the lake and its surrounding hills as the scenery changes through the seasons.

To learn more about Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), there is an excellent lecture recorded at Google, in 2007, in which Jon Kabat-Zinn outlines some of the science surrounding his MBSR programme. In a shorter interview filmed in 2010, Kabat-Zinn outlines his more recent and general reflections on mindfulness. For further information on the application of mindfulness in current psychiatric and psychological practice, there is much information available at the website of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, a UK based charity working with the therapeutic use of mindfulness to prevent depression and enhance the emotional quality of our lives. Founded in 2008, within Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, the centre is involved in training, education, clinical and neuroscience research in the field of mindfulness. Two members of the centre, Mark Williams and Danny Penman, have recently published a book entitled Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (Includes Free CD with Guided Meditations). There is also a good introductory article called Mindfulness in psychotherapy: an introduction by Chris Mace, Consultant Psychotherapist, in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2007)13: 147-154).

It is also significant to note that The UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has recommended MBCT as a cost-effective treatment for preventing relapse in depression. The book called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (Segal, Williams, Teasdale), published in 2002, has contributed significantly to advancing the evidence-based therapy for recurrent depression.

I would recommend this film to anyone interested in understanding the role of mindfulness based therapy in mental health.

•  More information is available about this film at IMDB, as is a short trailer.

•  Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter....Spring is available to buy, although it has recently become unusually expensive, at or it can be rented.

•  Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Joyce Almeida


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About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.