Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Samaritan Girl (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 27, 2005

Directed and written by Kim Ki-Duk/starring Kwak Ji-Min, Seo Min-Jung, Eol Lee/Tartan Video

Two teenage girls go into prostitution to pay for a trip to Europe, with disastrous results.

This is an intriguing little film from Korean auteur Ki-Duk, who is developing a cult following based on his idiosyncratic films like The Isle, which will forever be known to me as “the fishhook movie”, for reasons I’ll leave you to discover. His films tend to be spare, quiet and low-key, a marked contrast to the recent crop of outrageous Asian cinema. Ki-Duk is kind of the anti-Takashi Miike.

Which makes it all the more interesting that he’d choose a subject like teenage prostitution. There’s so much potential for exploitation, and subtlety is practically Ki-Duk’s middle name. Needless to say, Samaritan Girl is hardly your typical hooker-movie fare. There’s very little nudity, and the sexual exploits of its protagonists are only dealt with in the most vague terms. If you’re looking for cheap thrills, this is the wrong place.

The story begins with Jae-young (Min-Jung) and Yeo-jin (Ji-Min), two typical teenage girls in just about every way. They dream of traveling to Europe for some reason (the same way young Americans do, I suppose) and decide that the only way to pay for it is for Jae-young to sell her body. Yeo-jin agrees to handle the business side, effectively serving as her pimp. When one transaction goes awry, Jae-young winds up dead by accident, and the grief-stricken Yeo-jin goes on a mission of redemption by tracking down her former clients and paying them back. Meanwhile, Yeo-jin’s cop father (Lee) finds out about her extracurricular activities. He’s understandably upset but is unable to confront her about it, instead choosing to harass her mostly embarrassed tricks.

This is a good film, but an extremely odd one at times. Rather than integrating its various subplots effectively, it seems to lurch from one to another almost at random. It’s as if Ki-Duk kept changing his mind about which story to tell during the writing stage – first the film follows the two girls on their misadventures, then Yeo-jin on her quest, then her tortured father. Of course it’s entirely possible that Ki-Duk intended for the film to feel exactly this way, but the result plays like a series of vaguely related short films without any overriding theme. Stuff just kinda happens, followed by more stuff that just kinda happens, followed by an obtuse ending that seems to have no point at all. It’s interesting to watch, but what the hell is he trying to say?

Maybe I’m relatively ignorant of Korean society, but I seriously doubt that this movie is a realistic portrayal of teenage prostitution in that or any other country. I could be wrong, but I strongly doubt it. Jae-young has quite possibly the sunniest disposition of any hooker in cinema history. She approaches her assignments with the high-spirited enthusiasm of a pep squad cheerleader, and insists that all of her clients are “nice guys” who she is happy to have met, despite the more cynical Yeo-jin’s protests. The girls’ decision to get into the business seems unbelievably naïve at best, with no thought of the possible consequences. It’s as if they’ve decided to open a lemonade stand or bake cookies for charity. It makes Pretty Woman look like Leaving Las Vegas.

Yeo-jin’s mission is a little strange as well. One would think that if her friend died (albeit by accident) in the pursuit of spending money, wouldn’t giving back that money amount to her death having no meaning? The clients weren’t affected at all by her death – they got what they wanted, after all. Why give the money back? She earned it. If she really wanted to honor Jae-young, she should have taken the money and gone to Europe like they planned. Maybe she wasn’t thinking that clearly (being in mourning), but nothing about what Yeo-jin does seems particularly logical. It’s as if she’s saying, “hey, my friend died being a prostitute, so not only will I become one too, I’ll give the money she earned back!” That’s just completely nonsensical thinking. And technically, she could have given the money back to the clients without having sex with them too. I don’t know, maybe the definition of “Good Samaritan” is radically different in Korea.

However, none of this keeps Samaritan Girl from being a fascinating film to watch, even if it leaves you puzzled and scratching your head afterwards. Ki-Duk is definitely a director to watch, and even if this is a minor film of his, it’s still worth a look.

*** 5/27/05

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