With an appealing and exotic formal structure, South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk (The Isle) achieves the elegant simplicity of fable in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. In a recurring motif, wooden doors creak open to reveal a humble Buddhist monastery amidst a remote mountain lake. That temple becomes a stage for a myth about stages: the seasons of the earth and of life.
Kim's sequence of zen koans weds captivating, artfully composed images to sly humor, aching drama, and morally rich life lessons, with the stucture itself being the evergreen, ultimate expression of the human experience: we live, we strive, we die, but hopefully we attempt to leave something of our presence to those who follow.
In Spring, an old monk (Oh Young-Soo) shadows his boy protégé (Kim Jong-Ho), witnesses the boy's unkindness, and instructs him of its consequences. Summer finds the boy of teenage (in the form of Seo Jae-Kyung) and assisting the old monk in curing an ailing girl ("When she finds peace in her soul, her body will return to health") by unconventional, lusty means.
Drawn into worldly desires, the now-adult monk (Kim Young-Min) returns a fugitive from the outer world; with the help of his master in Fall, asylum turns to penance on the quiet raft. In winter, the mature monk (played by director Kim) has supplanted his master and finds oneness with his environment, accepting the changes time brings. As Spring returns, the aging monk is now the master to a child pupil open to every possibility.
Kim attains natural beauty in his frame and also lightly plucks imagistic strings: the motifs of carrying a weight, opening doors (necessarily, if sometimes against reason), and shutting oneself from the world in shame, or acceptance of the ultimate passage. "Sometimes we have to let go of things we like," says the old monk, whether unfocused rage escaping from self-loathing, material possessions, or life itself. Man must ceaselessly struggle to attain enlightenment, even if it means rebirth of spirit in another hopeful and fallible being. Perhaps time is not a flowing river, suggests Kim, but a placid lake.