The title of Kim Ki-Duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring pretty much says it all: here is a story of time passing, marked by five particular moments. No points for guessing that the seasons of the title are metaphorical references for points in a man's life, but yes, this is the story of a child in spring, a young man in summer, a grown man in fall, and death and rebirth in winter leading back to spring - though if you reduce the film to a word-puzzle level of artifice like that, you've already decided to rob it of its most ethereal qualities that give it such a desperately beautiful edge, so I hope you'll go ahead and forget every single word that I've written so far.
The first spring introduces us to our two main characters: an old monk (Oh Young-Soo) and his child apprentice (Seo Jae-Kyeong) - neither of them is ever given a name, which is our first hint that this is meant to be a universal story. They live on a temple floating in a lake in the mountains, where the old monk is training the boy in the ways of nature and life. One day, the boy goes out exploring, and out of boredom more than anything ties a rock to each of three different animals: a fish, a frog, and a snake. The monk watches as the boy laughs in delight at the animals' struggle. While the boy sleeps, the monk ties a large rock to his back, as an object lesson, and informs the boy that he will only remove the rock if the boy goes and frees the three animals - but if any of them is dead, that is a stone he will carry for the rest of his life in his heart. The fish and snake are already dead before the boy finds them, and he collapses into tears.
Summer finds the boy grown to late adolescence (played now by Kim Young-Min), when a woman (Kim Jung-Young) brings her teenage daughter (Ha Yeo-Jin) to be cured of a sort of spiritual malaise. As young people will do, the two begin to have sex, hiding from the monk until one afternoon when he spots them asleep together in a boat. He observes that this appears to have been the cure the girl needed, but now that the boy has known carnal pleasure, he can no longer stay at the temple: love and lust beget possessiveness and jealousy, and these are sins which cannot be borne in that place of spiritual peace. The two young people depart.
In the fall, the old man unwraps fish from a newspaper, and notices the headline declaring that his former pupil, now a fully-grown man (played by the director, in his first acting appearance), murdered his wife and is in hiding. Soon enough, the man arrives at the temple, begging for sanctuary; two policemen (Ji Dae-Han and Choi Min) arrive shortly after, demanding that the monk release the fugitive. But first, he must carve out a series of characters the monk painted on the wood of the temple barge, and in so doing cut out the pain and misery and jealousy of his soul. This done, the man peaceably goes with the police. The monk, aware that his life is over, covers his face with paper, and sits in a boat which he then sets on fire.
Winter comes, and the man, released from prison, finds his old master's remains and lays them to rest. Then he begins to train himself. At night, a woman (Park Ji-A) brings a baby to the temple and lays it at the door; running out over the frozen lake, she falls into a hole and drowns. The man finds her and takes the baby.
...and it is spring again, and the new monk trains his youthful apprentice, who would much rather enjoy himself tormenting the local animals. A statue of Buddha on a hillside, placed by the monk during the winter, watches over them.
I have described the story at such extraordinary length only because I could think of no better way to explain the peculiar rhythm of the film than to lay it all out there: the way that it is both a series of events disconnected by years that also function as a single, perfectly smooth arc. Don't think for a moment that by relating so much of the plot that I've done anything to spoil the movie at all, because the specific details of what happens absolutely don't matter. What does matter is the feeling of watching it, drifting by at what feels to be a glacial pace, though it's actually quite a speedy, compact film (it's barely 100 minutes long). And what matters is noticing the visual echoes, the repeated lines of dialogue, and the recurring motifs of animals wandering across the land. These are not things that can be communicated in a review, but only by watching the film.
The movie is steeped in Buddhist symbolism, but director Kim is in actuality a Christian; meaning that the symbolism is rather intuitive and universally-accessible. I (an American atheist raised in Protestant traditions) can't speak to what every gesture means, nor the precise importance of this statue or that, but the film is made up of broader things than simple ritual, and as long as you know that Buddhism is a religion particularly concerned with treating the natural world with respect and humility, there's nothing else that's important. Really, that's about as inscrutably Buddhist as it gets: precious few movies are so agog with wonder at the absolute majesty of nature and animals (superficially, the closest English-language analogue is the work of Terrence Malick), and why not? If more movies were set in impossibly lovely mountain lakes, I suppose we'd see more movies that took the time to study in quiet, lingering close-ups the play of water on rocks or the sound of trees in the wind.
Befitting its subject, the movie establishes a contemplative, meditative mood, which encourages the viewer to reflect and think even more than most movies with long, still shots of nothing in particular. It's literally framed in a way that encourages us to think of it as a presentational piece, rather than a character drama: each new chapter is introduced by the gates leading to the lake opening like a curtain rising. Thus, a coming-of-age narrative, which might otherwise seem trite and deterministic, becomes something of a parable: we aren't specifically look towards the boy and his rise to deeper understanding of the world and his place within it as an instructional model (it's a Buddhist parable, not a Christian one), but as a tool for thinking and better understanding who we are and how we live.
The film is not without its specific flaws - for one thing, its treatment of women is, while not exactly "misogynist" or even "sexist", rather over-invested in the notion that women add little of value to a spiritual understanding of the world other than as an obstacle to overcome, and the fall sequence in particular errs on the side of too much plot for its slender, contemplative mood to complete withstand - but this is trivial in the greater scheme of things. The movie presents a compelling and fairly unique view of life's order that is of value above and beyond any particular cinematic achievements on Kim's part; the fact that his movie is indeed a beautiful and nuanced work is undeniable though, and enough to make the movie one of the great experiences of the decade.