In 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 internationally.
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 Film Festival.
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.
Ki-duk Kim (director) / Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Ji-min Kwak …. Yeo-Jin
Min-jeong Seo …. Jae-yeong
Eol Lee …. Yeong-ki