n addition to Chan-wook Park ("Old
Boy"), South Korea has one of the most talented directors working
in cinema today in Ki-duk Kim. Like his fellow countryman, Kim's films are
raw, emotional and uncompromising, though they tend to focus more on the
psychological rather than the visceral, dealing with the darker aspects of
human desire. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because his films lean
more towards the abstract and art-house, he is not quite as well known
However, "The Isle", "Bad
Guy", and more recently, "Spring, Summer, Autumn,
Winter..and Spring" have earned worldwide release and praise, and
word is at last spreading that Kim is a director of considerable skill.
"Samaria", his most recent effort, was shot quickly and on a low
budget, though this never shows onscreen. It is a powerful and moving film
that provides a thought-provoking view on the controversial subject of
teen prostitution, and is well deserved of its recent win at the Berlin
The story follows two schoolgirls, Yeo-jin (Ji-min
Kwak) and Jae-yeong (Min-jeong Seo). In order to raise money for their
trip to Europe, Jae-yeong works as a prostitute while Yeo-jin sets up
clients and manages the money. The two have very different views on what
they are doing. Jae-yeong is happy to sleep with men for money, imagining
herself as a modern incarnation of Vasumitra, a legendary prostitute who
converted men to Buddhism through the act of sex. She seems to enjoy her
work and is happy to form relationships with the men she meets.
Yeo-jin, on the other hand, feels dirty at being
involved, jealous of the feelings Jae-yeong has for her clients, and
guilty about the fact that it is her friend who is selling herself.
However, after a tragic accident, Yeo-jin is forced to confront her
feelings and to reassess her passive role. Things get worse when her
father discovers what she is doing and, unable to accept his daughter's
actions, takes matters into his own hands.
This is obviously controversial material, and Kim,
who also wrote the script, handles it skillfully and objectively. Shying
away from the surreal touches that characterized "The Isle" or
the gritty sleaze of "Bad Guy", he simply sets events in motion
and lets the story tell itself. This is not to suggest that his approach
is cold; far from it, as in Jae-yeong, Yeo-jin, and her father, Kim
creates a set of painfully believable characters that the viewer cares
deeply about. However, it is left to us to judge their actions, and whilst
the film follows a definite narrative course, there are many different
interpretations of the psychology behind the characters and their
reactions to events.
Although the film is not particularly graphic in
terms of sex or violence, some may still find it hard going, or may be
annoyed by the fact that the director does not offer any easy answers. I
have always liked Kim's handling of emotionally complex material, and
though his work is a little obtuse, he never cheapens it with obvious
sentimentality or simple nihilism. More than his other films,
"Samaria" features realistic characters, and I found it to be
incredibly moving, with a punch that I felt for days after.
"Samaria" is very well directed, and Kim
shows his considerable talent, adding a touch of beauty and even innocence
to such a dark story. Thankfully, he avoids using visual gimmickry or any
obvious stylistics, and keeps the film nicely grounded. There are a couple
of dream sequences that venture into the surreal, but these are well
placed in the narrative and do not intrude. Although there are a few
scenes of violence later on, the film is generally quite subdued, as Kim
provokes subtly rather than by throwing in visceral shocks. This may put
off some viewers, as may the film's somewhat deliberate pace, being at
heart more of a character study than anything.
The acting is excellent, especially by first-timers
Ji-min Kwak and Min-jeong Seo. Both are absolutely believable in their
roles, expertly bringing the characters to life through their nuances and
changing feelings. Had known actresses been cast in these roles it would
have diluted the film's realism, whilst the fresh-faced charm of these
unknowns really helps the viewer take the story to heart. Eol Lee is also
excellent as Yeo-jin's father, giving an anguished portrayal of a man
whose heart has been torn apart.
"Samaria" is an excellent film, one of the
most challenging and moving I have seen for some time. For fans of the
director, or those who are willing to invest in demanding cinema that asks
as many question of its viewers as it does its characters, this is a
harrowing film that should not be missed.