I could not tell you, offhand, how many teenaged girls in Korea prostitute themselves. I would hope it’s not endemic. I doubt it is, but that doesn’t make the events in Samaria any less troubling. It deals with two young Seoul girls who have made a pact to travel to Europe together, and who have chosen to raise the money to do so by selling their bodies. This is not the whole of the story, however, but simply the jumping-off point: the majority of the movie is about what happens when one of their fathers, a policeman, discovers what has been going on and is forced to confront his own willful passivity.
Samaria (or Samaritan Girl) is one of the more recent films from Korean director Ki-duk Kim (3-iron), who’s made a name for himself in his homeland by creating some of their most confrontational films. This is saying something, given that most Korean movies seem to always have an edge of confrontation to them, and often contain material that would be unthinkable in most mainstream cinema. I admired Kim’s earlier movie The Isle, even while I found its subject matter extremely hard to take. Samaria is not quite as lurid in its subject matter or details, but it is heartbreaking and troubling, and I’m sure that’s exactly why he made it.
The two girls in Samaria make an unsettling pair. Yeo-jin (Ji-min Kwak) is the cannier and more worldly of the two; she uses her perky phone manners to set up meetings between Jae-young (Min-jeong Seo) and prospective male clients.& nbsp; Jae-young is a strange girl̵ 2;spacey, dizzy, an d finding a bizarre sort of fulfillment in sleeping with all these different men. Yeo-jin finds this threatening to her, and there are strong hints that the two are in fact lovers themselves. The last thing Yeo-jin wants is to lose her friend to a client, but they haven’t saved up nearly enough money to leave yet, and so each meeting with a john is torture.
When Yeo-jin isn’t playing pimp, she’s attending school and being ferried to and from class by her father (Eol Lee), who happens to be a homicide detective. They are the only thing in each other’s lives after Yeo-jin’s mother died, and so hesitant is he to upset her that he can barely rouse her out of bed when she doesn’t want to get up in the morning. Like most fathers, he remains either willfully or genuinely ignorant about his daughter, and says nothing when she comes home at strange hours.
One afternoon everything goes horribly wrong. Yeo-jin gets distracted when playing lookout for the police, and Jae-Young throws herself out a second-story window to avoid getting caught. She ends up in the hospital, and before she dies begs her friend to go to the last man she slept with—a self-important, supercilious musician—so that she can tell him she loves him. This culminates in an almost unbearably painful sequence where Yeo-jin goes to the musician in his studio and discovers that he will only go with her if she sleeps with him as well. Incidentally, every Korean movie I’ve seen so far explicitly links sex with pain, where the latter is just the price the universe extracts from you for the former.
In the wake of her friend’s death, Yeo-jin decides to do something unprecedented: she’s going to go back, find every single one of the men who slept with her friend, and return the money they gave her. Given the amount of guilt she feels, a task of this magnitude isn’t so farfetched: it’s not what she can do, but what she’s attempting to do that makes the difference. In the first part of the movie, we hear about a prostitute who converted everyone she slept with to Buddhism, and the parable serves as a kind of template for what comes next. From the outside, it may seem Yeo-jin is either deluded, or mad from grief, but we have been given the context to know differently.
What happens next is both predictable, and not. Yeo-jin’s father, as you might imagine, discovers what has been happening, and then begins to go on a parallel course of his own. I will not describe what happens here, nor what unfolds from it, but it manages to be shocking and sad at the same time. There is one scene in particular that is worth mentioning, wherein the father follows a certain person back home to his family, and humiliates him to such a degree that we’re forced to ask: Why go to such lengths when the damage has already been done? Then it becomes clear: the father is punishing himself as much as he is the people he sees as villains, because in his own mind, he allowed all of this to happen through his inaction and his willful ignorance.
The final fourth of the movie is peculiar, but I believe it serves a specific purpose. Instead of a Grand Guignol ending with much bloodshed, Kim gives us a low-key conclusion where very little happens or is said, and the real meaning of the scenes grows out of the silences between words. It’s not the ending I expected—and it is probably not the ending most people would have anticipated or even wanted—but it is the ending Kim chose for it. More importantly, it puts the focus of the movie on morality than simply behavior, or even consequences. Now that I think about it, a lesser movie probably would have ended with a bloodbath, simply because it wouldn’t have known how to more gracefully handle the implications of what this one brings up.
Other Lives Of The Mind