Opens Fri May 14
Each segment of this unusual Korean film corresponds to one of the seasons in the title, and each season, in turn, describes one phase in the life of the main character. At the outset, the character is a child monk, and at the end, he's an adult monk, but the progress of his life is far from predictable or smooth.
The cyclical action takes place in a fantastical setting: a tiny yet elaborate floating monastery (built especially for this film), which drifts on the surface of an artificial lake (constructed in 1721 as a large-scale reflecting pool to mirror and exaggerate the beauty of the surrounding mountains). The meditative cinematography flirts with the picturesque, but the sharp delineation between nature and artifice prevents the lovely images from becoming facile or uninteresting.
The five seasons are governed by very different generic conventions--meaning, it's entirely possible to enjoy one and abhor the next. "Spring," a dense parable in which an older monk teaches the child a Buddhist version of the Golden Rule, introduces an ominous strain of violence. The film doesn't assign blame for what happens next--perhaps aggression is a human quality that can't be scrubbed away with ritual, or maybe some people just aren't made for asceticism. But in "Summer" and "Autumn," a tiresome coming-of-age vignette and a cop drama, respectively, the young monk strays from his upbringing.
Elements of magical realism creep in at the end of "Autumn," and then "Winter"--by far the most successful segment, and the only full episode to feature director Kim Ki-duk as the adult monk--explodes into an astounding ode to labor and atonement. The soundtrack, which has been subdued throughout, vibrates with the wild energy of a traditional song performed by Kim Young-im. You could lose yourself in "Winter," and it's worth wading through a few stretches of mediocrity to get there.