Country: South Korea
Running Time: 97'
Director: Kim Ki-Duk
Cast: Lee Uhi, Kwak Ji-Min, Seo Min-Jung,
GHOUL RATING: 3 (***)
Story: Two teenage girls dream of traveling to Europe. In order to collect the money, they become freelance prostitutes, or more precisely, only one of them is actually doing ‘it’, while the other is arranging the business over the internet and cell-phone. For a brief while it seems to be going well, but very soon a series of tragic events takes the plot into progressively darker and darker territory that I’d rather not spoil for you. Is there any light at the end of this tunnel?
Review: The above synopsis may make you expect a slice-of-life kind of drama about the growing social problem of teenage prostitution – perhaps something along the lines of Masato Harada’s BOUNCE KO GALS. If you approach SAMARITAN GIRL with such expectations, you may be at least puzzled, if not even dumbfounded. The reason is simple: this film is not primarily concerned with social critique, nor does it insist on ‘realistic’ portrayal of characters and events in the strictest sense of the term. This is a film by Kim Ki-Duk – controversial Korean director of unique, powerful and unpredictable, genre-defying films of rare visual and visceral force. In numerous interviews he described his approach to filmmaking as ‘semi-abstract’, or, in his own words: ‘My concept of semi-abstract movie making is about doing more than just presenting reality. To the world as we see it, I try to add our thoughts and feelings.’ This is where he departs from Harada (whose film, by the way, is a decent and emotional drama about teen prostitutes, with perhaps too much sugar to actually have a desired impact).
SAMARITAN GIRL is not really about teen prostitution. It is, idiosyncratically for Kim, about big issues, such as Sin, Guilt, Shame, Revenge, Punishment, and Redemption. Just as in SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER…AND SPRING, the topics are universal and profoundly human, but the setting is not a detached temple: this time drama is set in deceivingly urban surroundings. All other issues are reflected through the central one, not only of this film, but of Kim’s entire opus: the problem of communication, or lack thereof. His works, especially THE ISLE, BAD GUY and 3-IRON, are centered on silent, moody characters, scarred by some unknown sorrow and left speechless. Instead of words, they mostly ‘talk’ through excessive acts of sex and/or violence. This provides opportunity for some beautiful, erotic, but also shocking images which, in their own way, ‘tell’ the viewers more than any words of dialogue could. In that respect it is important to note that nudity, sex and extreme brutality in Kim’s films are never exploitative, they are never ‘fun’: it is precisely in those extreme scenes that his characters are revealed, unmasked, nude: it is precisely in their misbegotten attempts at communication that we realize who they really are.
Jae-Yeong communicates through sex. She enjoys it, to the bewilderment of Yeo-Jin, her business-like companion: ‘Even though it’s brief,’ she says about sex with strangers, ‘we are still sharing something. I’m not dirty.’ Her friend still insists on ritualized attempts to literally wash away the sin (the film has strong Catholic undertones!). In the later part of the film, Yeo-Jin has to try to understand her friend by becoming her (‘I’m the real Jae-Yeong!’), and thus redeem her sense of guilt… Yeo-Jin’s father is a policeman who accidentally, standing next to a murder victim, glimpses his daughter with a client in the hotel across the street. Quite understandably, he is staggered. His only way of communicating his anguish is – violence. Unable to actually talk to his daughter, other than recounting stories about Catholic saints and miracles, he starts stalking Yeo-Jin’s clients and inflicting increasing doses of pain: it begins with slaps on the face, progresses with a particularly painful exposure of a pater familias in front of his family (which ends with his suicide) and culminates with a very bloody murder. With his own dose of guilt and confusion he takes his daughter to the countryside, to her mother’s grave. Significantly, it is in the nature – almost idyllic and pure – that last attempts at communication and redemption are to be made…
SAMARITAN GIRL is, just like Kim’s best work, intriguing, beautiful, painful, puzzling, spiritual, and thought-provoking. Unbearable physical cruelty and mental anguish are followed by sentimental passages of touching beauty: surprising acts of bloodshed precede lyrical and poetic scenes – and all of them, as a whole, reveal a work of profound insight into the human condition. All of it is presented in a matter-of-factly manner, with a distance which may alienate those expecting ready-made answers, but will certainly provoke others, willing to participate in a unique experience without a firm guiding hand leading them. You may stumble a bit - perhaps even the ‘guide’ is not fully certain about the place he’s showing you - but that is the pleasure of Kim Ki-Duk’s films: the sense of exploration, of a fascinating walk on infirm ground, and especially – of sharing the thoughts and emotions, fears and insecurities with an artist who has so much to show you. Kim is not working from an omniscient, God-like perspective: he is there, in the film, in each of the characters and in the setting that envelops them, experiencing and trying to understand the pain and the lack of communication that haunt him/them. If you allow him to take you into his ‘semi-abstract’ world, you may be haunted too, but –perhaps just a little bit – purified as well.