We begin by entering through an ornate gate onto the surface of a stunningly beautiful lake. (It's actually Jusan Pond, a 200-year-old artificial lake in South Korea's North Kyumgsang Province, if you happen to be in the neighborhood.) That the shot cuts away too quickly is the film's only discernible flaw, like a tiny flub woven into an otherwise perfect Arabian rug so as not to offend Allah. We're not in the Middle East, though. We're in Korea, about to embark upon the life-training of an evolving Buddhist monk.
In the middle of the lake, almost like a fantastic vision, floats a small, ostensibly idyllic monastery under the helm of the salty but wise Old Monk (Oh Young-soo). Here, in the springtime, there is but one ward, Child Monk (Kim Jong-ho), who cracks up after cruelly tying rocks to small, helpless creatures. The moral lesson that follows sets the tone for the whole film, which plays upon simple metaphors to get at much deeper patterns rampant in the outside world.
Even at this remote outpost, summer (literally and metaphorically) brings a surprise. The young monk has now grown into Boy Monk (Seo Jae-kyung), well into his randy years. When a woman (Kim Jung-young) brings her sick teen daughter (Ha Yeo-jin) to Old Monk for healing, Boy Monk and visiting girl end up healing each other in the nicest possible way. No matter how many teen flicks you've seen, the sheer elegance of Ki-duk's presentation of this transition strikes a universal chord.
Ki-duk's film has been created with no apparent concern for Western tastes, particularly those commonly found at the multiplex. Still, in terms of your movie buck, it's all here: sex, violence, a tried-and-true story arc, even some humor involving the delicacies of monastic living.
Inevitably, our protagonist grows in the autumn into Young Adult Monk (Kim Young-min) and in the winter into Adult Monk (the director himself). The way the film deals with his tragic struggles in the outside world is disturbing and touching. It's also creative; Ki-duk's camera doesn't venture beyond the lake.
Reining in the noise in this fashion requires a disciplined artist, and Ki-duk fits the bill. The director worked his way through odd jobs, a five-year stint in the South Korean army and the struggles of a painter on the streets of Paris before his filmmaking career took off. (For American audiences, that happened mostly with his previous film, The Isle.) With his subtly entrancing paean to seasons earthly and emotional, he has produced a rarity -- a perfectly balanced film, a true classic.