Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring

Starring Oh Young-Soo and Kim Ki-Duk. In Korean with English subtitles. Rated 14A.

A boy grows up (played by different actors at various ages) on an island raft floating within an isolated mountain lake, with only an old monk (Oh Young-Soo) as his teacher and companion. That, give or take some very rich details, sums up the plot of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. You can pretty much tell from the elliptical title that this elegantly put-together South Korean tale will be operating on the level of metaphor: no man is an island, maybe, but everyone feels adrift in the cosmos, at least some of the time.

I don't know why Koreans are prone to making such explicitly Buddhist movies, especially since the observational, nondoctrinaire qualities of the religion lend themselves well to the visual-emotional semaphore that is cinema. Hwa-Om-Kyong and Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? are two titles that deal with the lives of monks as pretext for tackling issues that are both specific and deeply universal, but neither was fixed in a location as sublimely rudimentary as the one that anchors this tale of devotion, revolt, and reconciliation.

Writer-director Kim Ki-Duk usually makes dreamily violent movies like The Isle and Wild Animals, but here he keeps the clatter mostly off-screen. Instead, he suggests the turmoil of anyone whose inner life is committed to enlightenment while the outer body has ideas of its own.

The specifics are instructive: as a child, the unnamed boy is caught playing sadistic games with frogs and snakes, tying rocks to them to see what will happen. "If any one of them dies," the monk explains, "you will carry that stone in your heart for the rest of your life." Later, a test comes in the form of a lovely, if depressed-looking, young woman (Ha Yeo-Jin) whose mother leaves her at the temple for healing. This comes in the form of the teenage boy's ardent attention--although the old-timer, who only vaguely interferes, warns him that lust leads to possessiveness and, in turn, to the capacity for murder.

His advice is prophetic. The boy leaves but keeps returning, eventually being played by the director, 43 at the time his film was made on the temple he built to float in a lake that was also man-made--although about two hundred years ago. These layers of artifice and authenticity are reinforced by the ornately carved doors that frame many of the gorgeously composed images; do they lend theatricality to the proceedings or bring them an insistent and inescapable gravity?

The nonjudgmental nihilism of Buddhism, as evidenced here, can prove a bit chilly to some. But if asked to pick a religion based on a single movie, few would choose the S & M pageantry served up in The Passion of the Christ over the open-ended life of heart and skin offered here. On the other hand, what is free will without a touch of the unpredictable?