As the title suggests, the film has a cyclical structure, divided into five sections, each one taking place in the titular seasons but spaced about a dozen years apart. The film tracks the lives of an adult monk (Oh Yeong-su) and his young apprentice (played by three actors over the course of the film, including the director in the final sections), who live on a small, floating monastery in the middle of a placid lake, surrounded by an idyllic landscape of gentle streams, stone monuments, and wild herbs that they grind into medicines.
All five sections take place in this setting, each section framed in more ways than one by a free-standing gate at the shore of the lake. Each section each season begins with the opening of the gate's decorative wooden doors to reveal the floating monastery, always there, never changing. This motif of a doorway punctuating a wall-free border seems to function as a reminder of propriety, with the moment in the "summer" section when the young monk first ignores the decorum of the doorways signaling a fundamental change.
In the first section, the apprentice (Kim Jong-ho) is a very normal little boy, with a slingshot at his side and a puppy chasing after him. And this earthiness, which only becomes stronger in succeeding sections, softens the spiritual severity one might glean from the title. One day, while playing in the stream, the boy takes great glee in tying stones to a series of creatures a fish, a frog, a snake and watching them struggle to move. The older monk witnesses this, and when the boy awakens the next day, he has a large stone tied to his back, which the older monk refuses to remove until he has found the creatures and freed them. He warns the boy that if any of the creatures have died, he will "carry a stone in [his] heart for the rest of [his] life."
As you might expect, these kinds of lessons continue in other sections, until the younger monk has an apprentice of his own, but the journey is complicated considerably when the younger monk's teen years coincide with the arrival of a pretty young woman who seeks healing.
The meditative quality of Spring, Summer (its sparse dialogue and commanding visuals lending it a gravity not unlike a good silent film) and the film's spellbinding location might well create converts to Buddhism, though apparently most of the Buddhist rituals and talismans in the film were invented by the director, who was raised Christian.
But even if you don't know much (or care much) about Buddhism or reject the film's notion that lust inevitably leads to misery, Spring, Summer still works as a succession of entrancing images, especially for American viewers no longer accustomed to seeing organic wonders instead of computer-generated ones. And wondrous images is one thing this film is filled with: A frog struggling through the water, a rock tied to it; a man hacking through a frozen waterfall; a man practicing calligraphy on the deck of his home using a brush dipped in water, his writing disappearing only moments after it appears, and, later, carefully painting a series of instructions on the same deck using the tail of a mewling cat as a brush; an infant crawling across a frozen lake in search of its mother.
The title and concept of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring makes it sound like either a forbidding bore or a pop-Buddhist travelogue for film fans who equate cinematography with landscapes. It is neither. With its earthy but lyrical tone and almost surrealistic series of eye-popping images, it is instead quite accessible and an utter pleasure to watch.
Imagine that you are a 7-year-old girl and that your favorite movies are Disney animated fairy tales. Consider the classics: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White. What do you a 7-year-old girl learn about yourself by watching these romances about pretty princesses who cannot themselves conquer dire circumstances and must await the arrival of cooperative, vapidly handsome princes to save the day and validate them with marriage? These princesses are very thin and very beautiful and, typically, very dainty (observe Disney's Snow White as she warbles "Some Day My Prince Will Come") and helpless in the face of danger. They also marry princes whom they do not know. Where is the romance? Where is the courtship?
Consider, now, the modern classics: The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel falls in love at first sight with Prince Eric and sacrifices first her voice and then her life as a mermaid to be his bride. We learn that the voice was a foolish trade, but the de-mermaid-ization is never questioned. In Beauty and the Beast, we learn that beauty is only skin deep, since Belle falls in love with Beast regardless of how he looks. However, once she loves him, the spell is broken and he becomes a beautiful Adonis, and everyone lives happily ever after. At least in the newer films, there is a courtship, but how much better is it that any worthy spouse must also be gorgeous?
I am not deploring these classic movies. However, I sympathize with the 7-year-old who dreams of being a princess with a small waist and big boobs and realizes at some point in her life that princess-dom isn't in the forecast. She is trained (is she not?) to seek out a prince: handsome, vain, preening, charming.
There is a line in the Sondheim musical Into the Woods where Prince Charming confesses to Cinderella, "I was raised to be charming not sincere." That's the thing about princes. So, for these reasons and for many others, I think it's very important that Shrek and now Shrek 2 be as canonical in the cinematic diet of young girls (and boys) as the greats mentioned previously. The Shreks, flatulent in their humor as they may be, have a single, overriding message that no Disney animated film can claim with equal success and style: It's okay just being you.
Shrek and Princess Fiona (voiced by Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz) are enjoying their honeymoon. They are summoned to a land Far, Far Away to attend a ball in celebration of their marriage. Fiona's parents think she has been rescued and wooed by Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), so they are less than thrilled to find that Fiona is now a large green ogre and that she has married one as well. "Not that there's anything wrong with that," adds the Queen (Julie Andrews) to her King (John Cleese), who disapproves of Shrek and unattractive green suitors in general. He enlists the aid of the Fairy Godmother (Absolutely Fabulous' Jennifer Saunders) to magically ward Shrek off, as well as the mercenary kitty Puss In Boots (a hilarious Antonio Banderas) to take him out.
Shrek ends up befriending Puss and falling prey to a Godmother potion that makes Fiona human again and he into a strapping princely type (a dead ringer for Beauty and the Beast's Gaston) but Shrek must kiss Fiona by midnight for the potion to be permanent. He must also beat Prince Charming to kissing her, because the King has been given a potion that will make her fall in love with the first man who kisses her. Are all these potions confusing you? Message: Stay off drugs and alcohol, kids.
Shrek 2 is very funny. But beyond the funny and beyond the spectacle of the animation (pay attention to how beautifully detailed the mottled-glass windows are when we see through them), Shrek 2 has many obvious and hidden messages. Shrek's colorful assortment of buddies (blind mice, pigs, a Pinocchio with a secret, and a wolf that dresses up like a grandmother all the time) sends the message: It's not important what other people think about you if you like yourself. Being different is okay.
Shrek 2 is a sequel that lives up to (and surpasses) the first, and both kids and adults will enjoy it wholly. More importantly, however, they will come out liking themselves a bit more in the process. Bo List