We begin by entering through an ornate gate onto the surface of a stunningly beautiful lake framed by verdant mountains. (It's actually Jusan Pond, an artificial lake two centuries old, in South Korea's North Kyumgsang Province, if you happen to be in the neighborhood.) The shot cuts away too quickly, but no matter -- it's the film's only discernible flaw, perhaps like a tiny flub woven into an otherwise perfect Arabic rug so as not to offend Allah. We're not in the Middle East, though -- we're in Korea and about to embark, literally by boat, 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-su). Here, in the springtime, there is but one ward, the Child Monk (Kim Jong-ho), who reveals, in keeping with his gender and age, a penchant for frivolous cruelty. In brief, the kid cracks up hysterically after tying cumbersome rocks to small, helpless creatures, who then struggle in vain to escape, presumably in terror. The initially bizarre 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, with no sign of civilization apart from the monastery, summer (literally and metaphorically) brings a surprise. The young monk has now grown into the Boy Monk (Seo Jae-kyung), well into his randy years. As fate would have it, a concerned woman (Kim Jung-young) has brought her ailing adolescent daughter (Ha Yeo-jin) to the Old Monk for healing. As nature would have it, the Boy Monk and the 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 should strike a truly universal chord. From furtive gestures to wanton expression to the inevitable separation, it is simple but accurate social science on a very human plane -- centuries of dogma clashing head on with fleshly passions.
Do note, however, that this film has been created with absolutely no apparent concern for Western tastes, particularly those commonly found at the multiplex. In terms of your movie buck, it's all here: sex, violence, a tried-and-true story arc, high-concept entertainment at its best. There's even some really nice humor involving the delicacies of monastic living put to actual human testing. Just don't expect zany pyrotechnics.
Revenge and retribution are afoot here, as inevitably our protagonist grows in the autumn into the Young Adult Monk (Kim Young-min) and in the winter into the Adult Monk (the director himself). The way the film deals with his tragic struggles in the outer world is disturbing and immensely touching, and again very creative, since we needn't venture beyond the lake to understand.
Reining in the noise in this fashion requires a very 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 domestic audiences, mostly with his previous film, The Isle, or Seom). Here he has produced a rarity -- a perfectly balanced film, a true classic. This subtly entrancing paean to seasons earthly and emotional is to the developing male psyche what Whale Rider is to the female and deserves equal acclaim.