He feels very dirty inside, but Judge Joel Pearce can't help being attracted to Samaritan Girl.
"I'm not dirty." -Jae-young
If you haven't experienced a Kim Ki-Duk film, I highly recommend you do so. His voice is one of the most powerful and unique on the international film scene, and Samaritan Girl is as fascinating and challenging as his previous efforts.
Facts of the Case
Although there's got to be a better way to take a trip to Europe, young teenage friends Yeo-jin (Ji-min Kwak) and Jae-young (Min-jeong Seo) have started a small prostitution business. Jae-young, almost frighteningly innocent, enjoys the intimacy that comes from her sexual experiences, and she has the help of the much more reasonable Yeo-jin to handle the business and keep them both out of trouble. Yeo-jin has serious second thoughts, especially when she observes how men treat her naïve friend. When Jae-young dies during a police raid, Yeo-jin decides to return the money to their customers, which attracts the attention of her concerned cop father Yeong-ki (Eol Lee, H). What follows is a dark journey into revenge and redemption, as all of the characters realize they have been tossed into a situation that they would have never imagined.
I don't remember what I expected before I sat down to watch Samaritan Girl. I know that this wasn't it, though. Some films refuse to follow convention, refuse to be categorized, and refuse to take the viewer to where they expect to go. This film offers one of those experiences. Kim Ki-duk's films are deeply rooted in religion and morality, which permeate the script and screen of his films. He is also fascinated with sexual obsession and violent reactions, which takes the viewer on a disturbing ride. Each plot development arrives suddenly, just as you think you understand where the movie is headed. Ki-duk knows how to shoot a film, and he knows how to play with the emotions of the audience. We become fascinated by the lurid lives of the two girls, just enough that we feel dirty ourselves when everything starts to fall apart.
Kim Ki-duk's previous film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring is one of the best movies I have seen in the past few years. It dealt with redemption as well, through a deceptively simple Buddhist fable. While Samaritan Girl touches on the same themes, it does so from a Catholic perspective. The actions of the girls aren't a matter of doing what is unnatural for them, but rather a question of sin. The actions of the men who hire them are dirty, and the ritual of washing that the two girls share after each job is like a small act of penitence. In this, they are able to wash themselves of their guilt, able to return to the world of childhood. Yeo-jin comes from a Christian home, and her father tells her stories about the saints, trying to instill her with moral values. Her actions after Jae-young's death are an attempt at penance as well, doing for the men what Jae-young would have done, even though it goes against her own sense of right and wrong. At the end of the film (without going into detail), both Yeong-ki and Yeo-jin need to go on a pilgrimage to purify themselves after the wrong they have done, so that they can return to their lives, face the punishment for their crimes, and restore their once-good relationship.
The characters in Samaritan Girl are not prepared for what they are getting into. This is especially true for Jae-young, who carries a warm and innocent smile, even to her death. Teenage prostitution is unpleasant and disturbing, but it never affects her. Yeo-jin puts herself in great danger after her friend's death, not realizing that she lacks the warmth that protected Jae-young during her intimate visits. Yeong-ki is hit hard by the reality of what his daughter is involved in, never guessing that his lessons would not be taken to heart. His reaction is that of a man unable to comprehend the truth. The customers of the young girls also never consider the seriousness of their situation until it's too late. Perhaps this is because of a cultural obsession with high-school-aged girls. This obsession is accepted, even fostered by the media, as long as people don't act on it. To be drawn to teenage girls is expected, but to get involved with them is taboo. When these men are brought face to face with what they've done, most of them are ashamed and embarrassed. This is where the fascinating moral complexity of Samaritan Girl manifests. Yeong-ki is justified in his actions at first, and is more aware of morality than the other characters. In his actions of revenge, however, he becomes the greatest monster in the whole film.
The relationship between Yeong-ki and Yeo-jin forms the core of the film. While much of Samaritan Girl feels foreign and strange, this relationship is keenly observed and universal. Something happens between fathers and daughters when they reach their teens that drive them apart. While this doesn't usually involve prostitution, the way these characters respond to each other is perfect. When Yeong-ki doesn't tell one of his stories of the saints during a car ride, she misses the story and asks him why he didn't bother. When he answers that she never listens, she gets offended because she always listens. For him, he doesn't feel she listens because she hasn't lived out the type of life that his stories encouraged. In her mind, his stories don't apply to her own experiences even though she likes to listen to them. In the end, the restoration of their relationship comes not from working out those issues together, but in his finding something to share with her and allowing her to grow up. Both of these performances are good, especially from Ji-min Kwak. She must seem older than she is, which contrasts well with the innocence of Jae-young. Although her decision to visit the men is bizarre, she handles it well enough that it seems plausible.
Tartan Asia Extreme has delivered another decent transfer of an excellent film. The video transfer is a little disappointing, especially considering that Samaritan Girl was produced last year. The image is soft, and the shadows lack detail. There is quite a bit of dirt on the print as well, which I found surprising. This is better work than a lot of companies deliver with Asian films, but I have come to expect more from Tartan. The sound transfer is better, offering a choice between Dolby 5.1, Dolby 2.0, and DTS tracks, all in Korean. The surround options are both good, with lots of music and ambient noise mixed into the rear channels.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although the themes are handled well overall, there are a few shifts in the story that are simply too jarring. I felt lost a few times, even when so much was compressed into a short film. I appreciate it more as I think about it and watch it again, but the plot is unconventional enough that it may turn some viewers off. I guess part of me still wishes for a clear moral message at the end, something stable you can walk away with. Samaritan Girl is an unpleasant movie to watch, so tense that it becomes uncomfortable. This isn't necessarily bad, but it is hard to recommend Samaritan Girl too warmly.
Special features are scant. I don't see much point in photo galleries, but the pictures are attractive in this case. It would be pretty cool if the pictures were in a booklet or something instead. Beyond that, there are only previews. A film like this, especially from another culture, deserves to have interviews and essay material. I want to hear what Kim Ki-duk has to say about this film, and to what extent this type of teenage prostitution is an issue in South Korea. Alas, all we get is yet another reminder that Oldboy is coming (which you should be excited about if you aren't already).
Many people would find Samaritan Girl too disturbing, uncomfortable, and challenging to understand why I am recommending it this highly. If you like to walk away from a film feeling good, then move on to something else. However, if you like to think about a film for days after you've seen it, address questions of morality and justice, you don't want to pass this one up. Kim Ki-duk has a beautiful way of telling a story, and he deserves more attention. Head out, grab yourself a copy of Samaritan Girl and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, gather people that you like to have serious talks with, and have an evening of revenge and redemption. It's rare to find films this provocative and fascinating.
I can't stop thinking about this movie, but I'm not really mad about it. Not guilty.
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