Samaria (Samaritan Girl) Review

After the deceptive surface beauty of Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...and Spring, a simple story with a darker undercurrent – the lurid subject matter and bleak outlook of the director’s earlier work returns in his latest film, Samaria, the winner of the Silver Bear at the 54th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2004.

There are no shades of grey in Kim Ki-duk’s world, it’s a black and white world of good and evil, although the two extremes are often difficult to separate. As embodied in the child Buddhist monk in Spring..., for the director even innocence holds innate the seeds of corruption. In Samaria (also known as Samaritan Girl), the innocence is that of two young schoolgirls, Yeo-jin and Jae-young, who in order to save money to escape to Europe, sell themselves into prostitution, luring clients on the internet who are in no doubt about their underage status. Yeo-jin (Ji-min Kwak) does all the work, procuring the clients and keeping look-out for police while Jae-young (Min-jeong Seo) has sex with the men in downtown motels. Inevitably, being mixed-up in such a dangerous business can have serious implications and it is Jae-young who suffers the consequences. To make-up for what has happened to her friend, Yeo-jin finds a way to undo the harm that has been done and tries to make amends. She goes back through each one of the clients, sleeping with them and paying them back the money they had been saving. The magnanimity of her gesture moves these men to reconsider the evil of their actions. (No really – this is Kim Ki-duks’s bizarre vision of the world...) However, Yeo-jin’s father (Lee Uhl), a police detective, is shocked to discover what his daughter appears to be doing and he finds another way of paying back dues that is a little bit more Old Testament.

The overall point of Samaria – like the earlier rather baffling Spring... – is hard to grasp. It’s not that the director’s themes and ideas are not clearly put forward. No-one can be more explicit than Kim Ki-duk, who characteristically lays out as clearly as possible his premise in the first lines of the film. Jae-young identifies with an Indian holy prostitute, Vasumistra, who brings men closer to God by having sex with them. Yeo-jin on the other hand likes to hear her father’s stories of saints and miracles and comes to believe that her actions by sleeping with the men will redeem the wrongs that have been done. Again, Kim Ki-duk tries to overlap Buddhist teaching with Catholic dogma and two completely fail to blend, giving out contradictory messages. There are few directors who so vigorously cling to certain themes and explore them through different situations as Kim Ki-duk does in his films, but he seems to be no closer to making his point any clearer and his methods of putting it across are far from convincing. Is he telling us that evil is innate? That it is the flipside of innocence? That we can be drawn to evil and violence through love? That we need to face up to the violence and corruption within in order to achieve redemption? These are all very Catholic notions pertaining to guilt and original sin (the director is a Catholic himself), none of them very original and none of the preposterous situations posited by Kim Ki-duk, either in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...and Spring or Samaria make them any more relevant or meaningful.

The now OOP Korean Region 3 Limited Edition of Samaria is presented in an amaray case slip-cased in a sturdy box. A soundtrack CD and a booklet are also included. The standard edition is presented in a standard amaray case and foregoes the inclusion of soundtrack CD and booklet.

The 1.78:1 anamorphic picture looks great and without closer inspection it could pass for a very fine transfer indeed. The image is crystal clear, sharp and even black tones are slightly more detailed than you usually find in a Korean release – however the encoding throws up some characteristic Korean NTSC transfer artefacts, namely an unstable jittery image that makes movements judder ever so slightly, causing backgrounds to shift and shimmer in and out of focus. I wouldn’t mark the image down too much because of this – it’s entirely possible that these problems will pass unnoticed for some viewers – in the same way that not everyone notices edge-enhancement. But if you have a larger display, I think these problems will be more evident. There are few dust spots, but the only other notable fault is a bar of shadow that runs down the centre-left of the frame during the last 15 minutes or so of the film.

Two audio mixes are provided – a Dolby Digital 2.0 and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Both function quite well, though neither with any great body. The 5.1 soundtrack is well mixed, mostly centre based, with a fuller sound for the piano theme that drifts through the film. The sound also opens up within the enclosed spaces of bars and restaurants. Quite good but unexceptional.

English subtitles read well, bar one or two very minor grammatical mistakes and are optional.

Extras are not extensive for a Korean Special Edition, which often have a tendency to often go over the top. None of the extra features contain subtitles. A Theatrical trailer (2:07) is included, presented at 1.85:1 letterbox and two TV Spots (0:32)/(1:02). The Making Film is divided into three sections, the first part (13:55) showing the director at work, talking through shots with the actors, doing ad hoc storyboarding, and answering interview questions; the second part (8:04) focuses on the two young actresses; the third part (6:39) on the lead actor, Lee Uhl. The Limited Edition of the DVD comes with a soundtrack CD that, once you skip past the Korean piano power-ballads, contains variations of the theme, which are nice, but get a little repetitive.

Kim Ki-duk is an interesting director, tackling difficult subjects in quite original and distinctive ways, but in Samaria he seems to offer no coherent themes or conclusions. Despite the lurid subject matter however, the treatment is not as graphically depicted as you might think from the director of The Isle and Bad Guy. It's looking like, in an attempt to appeal to a more lucrative European and American market - an attempt that is certainly succeeding - we are perhaps losing the rougher edges that made the Ki-duk's work more interesting and original. But although there may be evidence of a maturity in his film and storytelling techniques, there are no signs in Samaria of a maturing of the director's rather confused and disturbing themes.

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