(NSFW) Korean Movie Review #2: Samaritan Girl/Samaria (2004)

( Source: Naver Movies )

To my surprise, there can actually be some advantages to being a fledgling movie reviewer.

For instance, lacking the knowledge of experts, I can drop all pretense of objectivity. And indeed, my long-held preconceptions of this movie did have a profound effect on my ultimate enjoyment of it.

Also, only having seen one other of director Kim Ki-duk’s (김기덕) earlier works in passing – The Isle (2000) -  then I am in no position to analyze Samaritan Girl/Samaria (사마라아) in the context of his movies as a whole.

Well of course, I hear you say. But this is more important than it may at first appear.

This is because of the plethora of reviews already available, I have noticed that positive ones tend to include extensive references to Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003) in particular, while negative ones are more likely to analyze the movie in isolation. Not exclusively of course, but the division is noticeable. Rather than implying a potential forest for the trees phenomenon here though, I mention it because I have also heard Kim’s movies are very hit and miss, and hence that your opinion of them can be heavily affected by which film you watch first.

And therein lies the problem, for much about Samartian Girl is vague, confused and/or simply incomprehensible, and not in the positive sense that this encourages you to engage more with the movie in order to fill in the blanks. And while I strongly suspect that watching his earlier movies would clarify a great deal, by itself this movie would not encourage most viewers to do so.

( Source: Naver Movies )

In fairness though, I did set myself up for being disappointed.

I first heard of it two years ago, via a newspaper article I translated about how 3 in 10 internet dating sites were being used to arrange teenage prostitution. While I haven’t really pursued the subject since, deferring to the excellent work done by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling on it instead, the post was picked up by Shinsano at the East Windup Chronicle (as well as by Matt himself), and the back and forth I had with him there gave me the impression that Kim was a much-needed Korean social critic, welcome overseas but ostracized at home because of his constant airing of Korea’s dirty laundry.

That image of him is by no means incorrect. But despite not having seen it, somehow it also inflated the quality of the movie in my mind over the next two years, especially as the blog came to acquire its present focus. Suffice to say that by the time I finally began to watch it last week, I fully expected a fierce and piercing critique of the teenage prostitution industry here.

But just the marketing of the movie itself should have given me pause.

Consider the two promotional posters above from 2004, featuring Kwak Ji-min (곽지민) and Han Yeo-reum (한려름) respectively. Never mind that Kwak is topless, and as a minor when the picture was taken, meant that it was technically illegal; as this case with a 14 year-old in January and this case with an 18 year-old earlier this month demonstrate, the Korean authorities still seem strangely reluctant to prosecute this sort of thing. Rather, the point is that far from discouraging one from having sex with minors, both posters seem to be positively encouraging it.

True, as author of this blog, I can hardly fault someone for using such images for the sake of popularity, even if they send mixed messages. Also, at risk of sounding hypocritical, I’m not going to feign outrage at topless photos of someone just a few months shy of the legal age to pose for them either. But I do have my limits:

( Source: Celebrity Movie Archive )

This is the second of two bathhouse scenes in the movie, at just 6 minutes and 16 minutes into it respectively. Neither is entirely pointless: the implied lesbian relationship is central to understanding why Kwak Ji-min, pimping for Han Yeo-reum as they save money for permanently escaping to Europe, clearly becomes distressed when Han shows signs of enjoying her work, in particular becoming attached to one of her clients, a music composer. Derek Elly at Variety also notes that:

Wisely, Kim has opted not to show the sex scenes [with clients], and there’s tenderness (with gently lyrical music) in those sequences sketching the girls’ friendship — playing in a park together, or bonding in a Korean-style bathhouse.

Apparently so much tenderness though, that it put blinders on this unnamed reviewer at Asian Film Reviews:

There is minimal nudity in this movie, which is surprising considering the subject matter. The lack of nudity preserves the girls’ innocence and reinforces the integrity of the movie. If Samaritan Girl featured explicit sex, it would seem trashy and the message would be lost in all of the excess. Instead, this movie is a tender, touching story about shattered dreams and lost innocence.

TR at TimeOut London puts it rather differently however:

The actual paedophile sex is kept offscreen, but Kim’s enraptured gaze at the two naked girls washing each other in a public bath is as prurient as they come.

And while both scenes were certainly compelling viewing at the time, I was left wondering if it was really necessary to see them naked to appreciate their bond?

( Source: Naver Movies )

Probably not, and this adds a certain poignancy to what Adam Hartzel writes about Ki Ki-duk at KoreanFilm.org:

In tag-lining his Silver Berlin Bear award-winning film Samaritan Girl with the biblical reference, “He who is without sin, throw the first stone,” director Kim Ki-duk has allowed himself cover from critics. Such a tagline deflects any negative criticism before the critic has even criticized. It argues that only the critic who is without criticism themselves should throw damning words at Kim’s film, otherwise, the critic should remain silent. And who among us is without “sin”, hypocrites that we all are? Such underscores the marketing acumen, if not directorial skill, of Kim, a man who has quickly risen, justified or not, to become one of the most recognizable Korean directors throughout the world…

In combination with the posters then, those scenes were arguably far more for commercial reasons rather than the artistic ones Kim Ki-duk is better known for. While that does not make Samaritan Girl a bad movie in itself though, it does point to an emphasis on style over substance that plagues the entire movie, and after just 6 minutes into it to boot.

To a certain extent, this criticism is just personal taste. Friends that recommended Peppermint Candy to me for instance, only to be dismayed by my scathing review of it later, have since pointed out my preference seems to be for movies where everything is explained to viewers. That’s a fair assessment, and indeed my incomprehension at Kwak’s bizarre decision to sleep with all of Han’s former clients after her death, returning their money as some form of atonement (hence the title), means that I would have been unlikely to have ever warmed to Samaritan Girl. And in hindsight, being aware of that element of the plot is what put me off from watching it for two years too.

But I can still acknowledge the benefits of such an approach, and indeed to have provided more detail would probably have detracted from the haunting, slight surreal tone of the film, with occasional combinations of long, drawn-out, but otherwise compelling scenes and stunning cinematography that reminded a newbie like me of, well, the Italian movie Il conformista (1970). There is also a lot of symbolism and references to Christianity, redemption, and – most notably in my book – there is the decision by Kwak and one client to have a liaison on the riverbank in front of the National Assembly Building. A metaphor for something deeper perhaps? A thinly-veiled political message?

( Source: Naver Movies )

Alas, probably not. While it would be unfair of me to criticize Samaritan Girl for completely lacking the piercing critique of teenage prostitution I had projected onto it (albeit not unreasonably given Kim’s reputation),  I certainly didn’t expect the movie to almost glamorize it instead. But this is no exaggeration: with the exception of the composer Han became attached to, all of Kim’s clients treat her with (paternalistic) respect and kindness for instance (one can understand Han’s affection for them), most liasons take place in immaculate hotel rooms, and some immediately see the error of their ways after Kim surprises them by giving money back to them afterward.

There is no violence, no refusals to wear condoms, no STDs, no pregnancies and abortions, and apparently no impacts whatsoever on Kim herself, who someone manages to sleep with dozens of men in the afternoons despite being an otherwise ordinary middle-school student.

Indeed, the only unwelcome element in this fantasy is the police, first in the form of the officers raiding the hotel, forcing Han to jump to her death from a hotel window in order to escape, and later in Kim’s detective father Lee Eol (이얼), who discovers what she is doing but who chooses to confront Kim’s clients – in increasingly violent episodes – rather than confronting her.

Of course, Samaritan Girl does have some redeeming qualities. Kwak in particular seems to mature as an actor literally over the course of movie, and the tension between her and Lee – an excellent casting choice – that is the focus of the last third of the movie is both palpable and compelling. But both positive and negative reviews of the movie mention that Kim never quite manages a balance between surrealism and providing a convincing story, and even for those that don’t like to be spoon-fed all the details of a story like myself(!), there are simply too many gaps to make the necessary leaps of faith.

( Source: Naver Movies )

Instead of Samaritan Girl then, I heartily recommend You Are My Sunshine (2005) for an examination of the unsavory reality of the Korean prostitution industry, albeit only in passing. But I would appreciate any other suggestions.

Next review: My Wife is a Gangster (조폭 마느라; 2001).

(For all my Korean Movie Reviews, see here)

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19 thoughts on “(NSFW) Korean Movie Review #2: Samaritan Girl/Samaria (2004)

    • Thanks for the suggestions. Sorry that you’d prefer more popular titles, but with limited time to watch because of my young daughters then my preference is to focus on those ones with some commentary and/or impact on Korean gender relations and/or sexuality. In that sense, Samaritan Girl was de rigueur, however flawed it proved to be.

      I do get bored with the same old thing just like everybody else though, so we’ll see. And come to think of it, I have a Marathon DVD sitting in a shelf within arm’s reach as I type this! It didn’t really move me when I saw it a year ago though, so I’m not really tempted to watch it again sorry.

  1. Samaria is my favorite Ki-duk film. I’ve seen most of his films.

    I doubt the film is really about teenage prostitution, it probably just serves as a vehicle for whatever Ki-duk is trying to communicate. Like pretty much any Ki-duk film, Samaria does not explain itself and is not easy to unravel, and I myself am not sure what it’s about. It’s been some years since I saw it anyway.

    I didn’t find the shower scenes to be remarkable or suprising. I thought they were tender.

    I’ve seen My Wife is a Gangster too. It’s fairly amusing but nothing special.

    • We can agree to disagree on the shower scenes, but otherwise that was very well put. But why is it still your favorite Ki-duk film? Not being facetious, just confused.

      I agree about My Wife is a Gangster also: again I thought it would be more interesting than it was, partially because of a friend’s recommendation, and partially because Korean directors have a tradition of disgusing social commentary as comedy, and he led me to believe that there would be more of that in it. In the end there is very little though, and which is good, as it comes across as very contrived.

      But I’ll get to that in the next review!

      • I honestly don’t know why it’s my favorite. There’s just something about it. The ending scene has stuck to my mind the most. I should probably watch it again at some point.

        • Really? To be honest, I thought that was one of the worst scenes of the movie. While I could (SPOLIER) certainly understand and appreciate the message that Kwak is grown-up and would be on her own from that point on (as said by Lee himself), and even take the leap of faith required to believe that Lee’s colleagues in the police were closing in on him murdering someone too…there were still much better ways to present that then having them come and collect him while they were both in the countryside, literally abandonding his 15 year-old daughter there with (presumably) no money, no way to get home, and no provision made for her future. Would the scene really have been ruined by, say, having a second police car in the distance, coming to pick her up too?

          • One thing you have to keep in mind when watching Ki-duk’s films is that they operate in a parallel universe where things don’t always quite make sense. Odd things happen and characters behave in strange ways.

            • the problem is that while films frequently ask us to temporarily suspend disbelief and accept things we know aren’t the case in “real life”, Kim is sometimes just bad at it. Not always – again, I would point to Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall as an example of him doing an excellent job of making a dreamy, unrealistic situation utterly engrossing and make it work for audiences. I would also point to 빈집/3 Iron as another movie where he uses his talents to their utmost and makes us, at least for a while, engrossed in worlds that do not really exist and believe in his cinematic creations. The problem is that sometimes he’s too engrossed in his own world and message to bother creating one capeable of including audiences. Sometimes the digesis of the film just isn’t good enough to keep us involved in the story, and keep our normal, rational minds from going “Um . . . nope. Sorry, don’t buy it.”

  2. I have very mixed feelings about Kim’s movies . . . most of the ones I like, I like because of his exceptional visual sense more than anything about their plot – as a matter of fact, the more minimal the story, I think, the better. Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall was really quite lovely (albeit a very Christian understanding of Buddhism) and eminently watchable, and I find 3 Iron to be really wonderfully meditative. On the other hand, I would rather chew my own limbs off to escape than be forced to watch Bad Guy ever again. What’s really annoying about *that* film is that it probably has one of the most gritty and realistic depictions of life in red light districts in Korea ever made – but absolutely ruined by the most contrived storyline about “fate” ever and some truly reprehisible gender politics.

    In a way, considering his background as a painter, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that Kim’s work is often as visually interesting as it is, but the stories (such as they are) are often . . . well, intentionally shocking, but not very interesting or shocking in their *thinking* once you get past the intial “ick” factor.

    • Also very well put.

      Again, my disliking of Samaritan Girl is of course very much a matter of taste, but by no means am I put off “visual” movies with minimal plots: Baraka (1992), for instance, remains one of my all-time favorite movies. These days though, of all the criteria by which I judge movies, the “wife test” is the most important(!), as even before we had children she always had a tendency to fall asleep during movies that didn’t engage her. And however visually stunning, a meandering, obtuse plot is guaranteed to.

      We just bought an HDTV yesterday though, so we’ll see how much that changes our tastes! In the meantime, you did half-tempt me to watch Bad Guy, but after falling asleep during The Isle, and now being so disappointed with Samaritan Girl, It’s probably best that I give up on Kim Ki-duk. At least for now.

      • Oh, 나쁜 남자 is a *very* special movie ~ when my fellows and I watched it together years ago, the horror was manifest. About half the people in the room walked out well before the end, they were so upset by it. Hands down it is my least favorite Korean movie ever (and mind you, I sat through both Tube and Maumi ~ SHUDDER!)

        Kim’s problem isn’t so much that he’s visual rather than story oriented – it’s that sometimes he comes up with ridiculous or half-chewed ideas that won’t provide enough support for his visuals.

        • I realize now I actually saw it in passing on TV once (it involves a large pane of glass at some point, yes?), but not enough to remember it well.

          A couple of quick questions:

          1. What is this “Tube” and “Maumi” you speak of? Know thy enemy and all!^^

          2. Your fellows? Sounds intriguing(!)…but in the meantime, do you mean a movie theater really? If so, then it must indeed have been pretty bad, because I’ve never ever seen anyone walk out of a movie, either here or in New Zealand. Comedy shows, yes (once), but not movies. But perhaps that’s only because I’m one of that extremely rare breed that actually prefers sitting in the front row!

          • 2) Haha, no, my fellow Fulbrighters and I were watching it during our orientation, as part of a “relaxing” evening after classes. But I have no doubt that some of them would have walked out of a theater, having paid money for tickets, also. It inspired a pretty high level of disguist all around, and somewhat surprisingly, could find no defenders on any artistic merit or anything else. We just all really hated the movie.
            I once walked out of a spy film here and successfully demanded my ticket price back, mostly on the grounds that a friend had called from nearby and the movie wasn’t interesting enough to tempt us to stay.
            나쁜 남자 does involve a large pane of glass, used to stab the male lead through the gut. Rather improbably he lives, and without any medical intervention.

            1) 튜브/Tube (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0339824/) is about a subway disaster, and its release was delayed in response to the real subway arson disaster in Daegu in 2002. I think the second tragedy was that it was released at all – it’s a horrible muddle of a film that exemplifies just about everything that is wrong with mainstream movie making in Korea: hackneyed plot with holes big enough to drive a battleship through, painfully overdone acting, ridiculous symbolism, and an overdeveloped sense of the film being a “hollywood” production.

            마음이/Maeumi (http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1809874643/details) is a sickeningly “over” drama about a boy, a girl, and their beloved dog and how they struggle to survive after being abandoned. Truly disguisting gender politics compete with a treacly sweet and stupid storyline. Kids might enjoy it, but the level of violence and cruelty in parts (kid dies in first reel, dog in second) makes me think that maybe they shouldn’t watch.

            To be fair, I saw Maeumi on a bus with about seventy other lanugage students from my program, and all fifty girls from China seemed to be truly moved by the film, and sobbed at the end. Everyone else on the bus (except for one other western compatriot) said I was a cruel, awful person for sniggering at the film – hey, I tried to pretend I was sobbing! – and that my taste in film was terrible.

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  4. Regarding the bathhouse scene …

    If the director wanted to have gratuitous nudity, he had plenty of opportunity, given the subject of the movie.

    I think that their nudity is supposed to be symbolic of something (e.g. seeing each other clearly, without anything “masking” them, etc.) And keep in mind that in school, I hated English literature.

    • Granted that he had many opportunities, and that their nudity is supposed to be symbolic of something certainly makes sense. But I still think that it was unnecessary really – why have something at all that was likely to (and has) turned up on numerous Asian porn sites – as were the posters used for the marketing.

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