Korean ‘film poem’ is surprising series of life glimpses
In this quietly enthralling film from Korea, the cycle of the seasons signaled by that long, matter-of-fact title alludes not to a year of life, but to nearly an entire lifetime. Each of the seasons refers to a separate episode at separate stages in the life of a Buddhist monk, and for each of the stages—childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, etc.—a different actor plays the aging central character.
That cyclical structure helps give this exquisitely terse and episodic film poem a grander sort of continuity, but it is also one of the tip-offs that this miniature life story is less concerned with the developing psychology of its protagonist than with his gradual merging with forces and wisdom larger than himself. Writer-director Kim Ki-Duk, who also plays the central character in the final two episodes, surrounds the character and his passing dramas with richly visualized images of the film’s chief setting—a remote, forested lake with a small wooden temple on its shore.
Indeed, the temple and the lake are virtually major characters in the film as well. The peace and serenity of the lakeside setting are evoked at key points throughout the story, and simple wooden structures, including two sets of free-standing doors, help summon up a vision that embraces the natural and the magical all at once. A cat, a rooster and a water snake also get special fleeting attention at various points, as Kim and cinematographer Baek Dong-hyeong calmly elicit mythical values from vividly evoked natural settings.
In the course of things, we get glimpses of the fall from innocence, first love, the impulse to murder, aging and death, maybe even redemption and rebirth. But it really is a matter of glimpses—Kim consistently pushes melodrama toward the margins while letting the vision of something larger or deeper emerge from background and foreground alike. It’s an approach that gives us less of what we normally expect from movies but more in the way of surprise and delight.