He's been called "the bad boy of South Korean cinema," but you won't see much evidence of that in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, Kim Ki-Duk's Zen-like meditation on life's changing seasons. Set primarily in a small temple that's floating on a barge in the middle of a remote mountain lake, the film has an otherworldly air, cut off from the petty concerns that rule most of our lives. And though broken into discrete "chapters," it unfolds like a scroll, one season blending into the next, time both passing quickly and seeming to stand still. Truly meditative movies are few and far between these days. This one lacks only a mantra.
A parable of sorts, the story is about a young monk who, over the years, learns how to become an old monk from the old monk he lives in the temple with. It isn't easy. In "Spring," the young boy amuses himself by tying rocks to a fish, a frog and a snake. That night, while he's sleeping, the old monk ties a heavy rock to him. In "Summer," the young monk, now a young man, falls in love with a young woman brought to the temple for spiritual healing. When she leaves, he follows her, but he's back, in "Fall," albeit pursued by the law. Only an elaborate act of atonement devised by the old monk puts the young monk back on the path to enlightenment.
"I look at it as a series of paintings," Kim has said about the film, and it certainly arranges itself into some beautiful compositions, the change of seasons bringing about a change in light, color, texture. But Spring, Summer isn't just pretty pictures; it's also a moral lesson, a somewhat familiar one. Kim, who was raised a Christian, seems to be alluding to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the snake that slithers through the movie seems to represent desire. The difference is that, in Kim's cosmology, desire can be defeated. When the young monk, now a middle-aged man played by Kim himself, returns yet again to the lake, temptation no longer tempts him.