Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom)
Director: Kim Ki-duk. Cast: Oh Yeong-su, Kim Ki-duk, Kim Young-min, Seo Jae-kyeong, Kim Jong-ho, Ha Yeo-jin, Ji Dae-han, Choi Min, Kim Jung-young, Park Ji-a, Song Min-young. Screenplay: Kim Ki-duk.

You have to be a stronger man than I, or maybe just a nicer one, not to feel your eyes rolling a little when you see that the title of Kim Ki-duk's new film is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, and that its plot concerns a Buddhist monk who raises an orphan boy into maturity. You don't even need a plot description to tell you that the seasons themselves will provide elemental backdrop to the phases of this boy's life. The decision to begin and end with spring, while that cold blast of winter grips the fourth act of the movie, gives you a pretty solid indication of Kim's basic informing idea. You don't cast octogenarian monks in a movie about the seasons and expect them to live through the conclusion, do you? Maybe I'm getting cynical, but it all sounds a little precious to me, in that specifically Vivaldian way: beautiful, sure, but isn't that the point?

It may help to know that Kim, one of South Korea's rising directors, is known for more graphic and visceral fare. He's not liable to content himself with sun-dappled lakes and the crackle of scarlet leaves, or of abandoning these images to the expressive level of the tourist's postcard. What Kim has in fact produced, though you'll have to (and should) see it to savor the flavor, is akin to what David Lynch pulled off in 1999's The Straight Story, a gentle fable that glows with the aura of neuroses briefly tamed, but also a deceptively simple parable that never quite occludes the sadness and regret that impinge on any life. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring avoids its most obvious peril by defying the literal implications of its five chapters: the two Spring segments are perhaps the saddest in the film, while all five sequences, including Winter, culminate in their own miniature redemptions. In the first Spring, the curious orphan wanders through the woods and makes a ruthless game (though he, a child, is innocent of its ruthlessness) of tying heavy stones to the bodies of wild creatures. The monk catches him amid these pranks, and though the moral espoused by the sequence is essentially what you expect, the visual points of view and the privileged symbols are all peculiar enough to feel unpredictable. Kim Jong-ho, as the youngest of his character's four incarnations, gives one of those spectacularly sad child performances like the one in Ponette (though much smaller in scope), forcing you to wonder what an artist must do to elicit such grief on camera.

All of the elements in Kim's movie continue to work with perfect synchronicity, and even if it must be said that this is never the most ambitious or original of pictures (Buddhist homilies + resplendent locations + Mother Nature = hard to bungle), the film's sheer devotion to its story and images is stirring, and it still feels like a recipe that could have gone very wrong, whether by tipping into the maudlin or inflating into abstraction. The edges of the film are harder than you expect, without dimininshing the essential gentleness of the approach or the basic equanimity of the direction. Shohei Imamura's The Ballad of Narayama, a certain influence on some of the symbology in Spring, Summer..., is also a denser and more daring meditation on some of the same themes, though the more explicitly religious valences of Spring, Summer... help give it a unique aura. From time to time, the film risks overstatement, as in our introduction to the Fall sequence, when Kim Young-min's stormy arrival as the young adult monk seems a little over the top—but really, this kind of nitpicking is the worst that can be said about the picture's execution. Much more often, Kim's control of both pace and tone is pristine, and the production design is never less than absolutely captivating. A more visually indelible movie will be hard to find in 2004; the most visually unbeatable sequence is also the all-around best, when the elderly monk forces his protegé to atone for unspeakable sins by carving scores of ancient calligraphic characters into the wooden planks outside their floating cabin. The Bressonian mixture of intense labor, bodily devotion, and the palpable breath of spirituality across the frames is a peak few films seek to scale, and even fewer attain. Grade: B+

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