It all comes back to a temple, floating in the middle of a lake at the end of a remote mountain path. Even if Kim Ki-Duk's bracingly pure Buddhist parable Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring didn't contain vivid characters and devastating life lessons, the writer-director could still serve up shot after shot of that temple, whose isolation and austere beauty provides a picture-postcard representation of what the movie means to say.
The story follows the goings-on at the temple over the course of 30 to 40 years, as a boy grows to manhood under the guidance of wise old monk Oh Young-Soo in five season-specific vignettes. Oh teaches the child to be compassionate yet detached, but when the boy reaches adolescence (in the "Summer" section), a visit from a troubled young woman and her mother introduces worldly temptation, and the consequences affect the rest of the film.
Kim is best known in world cinema for visceral, shocking suspense films like The Isle and Bad Guy, and longtime supporters may find Spring, Summer too slight, too obvious, or too soft. It is a little obvious, but that's the way it goes with spiritual enlightenment. The film's lessons are plain—spoken aloud, even—and deal with the close relationship between what can be shed in this life and what binds people to the world in spite of their best efforts to purify.
Spring, Summer emphasizes the natural world through a contemplative but not showily abstracted visual rhythm, relying on striking images: a man repeatedly carving calligraphy into planks of wood, or the recurring motif of animals and people struggling to move while tied to rocks. In the final spring section of the film, Kim himself plays the student, now an adult, still grappling with how to spend a life in service to other people without forming lasting emotional attachments. Since the agonizing logic of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring establishes that "want" of any kind is tantamount to lust, which lies on the same continuum as murder, Kim's beautifully staged morality play affirms that life itself is exquisitely impossible.