Thursday, November 17, 2005

Samaritan Girl

Samaritan Girl is a film from Kim Ki-Duk, one of the premier directors of the Korean New Wave. He dropped The Isle and 3 Iron earlier, and Samaritan Girl is his latest. I was actually supposed to see this film at the Asian Film Festival earlier this year, however I cut my finger and went to the hospital, so I missed that. But some months later I'm back and have seen the film, and it builds on the work that Kim has done before in a really interesting and challenging way.

The basic premise of Samaritan Girl is two teenage girls become prostitutes to finance a trip to Europe. So, in a typical telling of this story you'd start off with some scenes showing them in the act, building up to the one client who pushes things too far and hurts them, which leads them out of the life of prostitution and back into regular society. That's pretty much the arc of Mysterious Skin, which I watched a few days. It's not a bad story, but what Kim does is really different.


I think the thing I most admire about this film is the way it constantly defies your expectations. The film opens with the two girls already involved in their prostitution business. You would think most of the drama in the film would come from how they wind their way around to prostitution, and particularly in witnessing them crossing that initial barrier. However, this way actually makes more sense because if you're watching the film, you probably already know the basic premise, and that would render those moments irrelevant. That's one of the problems with a lot of movies, the trailer will tell you everything that takes the film twenty minutes or so to set up, so for those first minutes, you're just waiting for them to get to it already.

So, this film jumps right into their lives and through a couple of clients, we get an idea of their routine. There's something a bit disturbing about how carefree Jae-Young is in approaching prostitution. She sees no danger in what she's doing. We get no sense of her home life, so it's like she's a kid, but has the freedom of an adult, and she uses that freedom to sell herself, with no apparent consequence. The arrangement they have works and it's only Yeo-Jin who confronts the morality of what they're doing.

It's never made explicit, but there's a pretty clear implication that Yeo-Jin is on some level in love with Jae-Young and by helping her to these prostitution deals, it's like she experiences vicariously the sexual connection she can't bring herself to ask for. Even though it is not the two of them having sex, with each job, the emotional connection deepens. This is why Yeo-Jin is so angry when Jae-Young becomes emotionally connected with her clients. She can tolerate sexual betrayal, but wants Jae-Young to herself emotionally. This is reinforced in the bath house scenes where Yeo-Jin tries to cleanse Jae-Young of what she's done. The kiss the two of them share is further evidence that they are more than just friends.

There's definitely a film there, touching on issues of sexual jealousy and ultimately on a traditional one partner sexual paradigm Yeo-Jin would want versus the moral liberated sexuality of Jae-Young. However that is not the film that Kim chooses to make. Instead in an extremely shocking development, Jae-Young jumps out of a window to avoid the police and winds up severely injured. When she's up on the ledge, you really get the sense that she could jump and be safe, and that's largely due to the way Jae-Young has behaved throughout the film. She's been in so many potentially dangerous situations and escaped unscathed, why should this be any different? However, it is different and it's a shock to see her bloody on the ground. This was not a plot twist I saw coming at all, certainly not twenty minutes into the film.

At Jae-Young's request, Yeo-Jin goes to look for a musician that she had been with earlier, that is her last dying request. Upon finding him, she is unable to tear him away from his composition, the previously tender, nice man is cold to her. So, she agrees to have sex with him, offering up her own purity to save her friend. It's disturbing to see her make this concession, and is a testament to the extent that she loves Jae-Young. When they do get to the hospital, Jae-Young is already dead and in one of the most brutal scenes in the film, Yeo-Jin sobs while the musician takes a cell phone call in the background, completely oblivious, or not concerned, with Yeo-Jin's suffering. It's a great conceit to show how little the people she was with actually cared for Jae-Young. They saw her only as an object.

So, in a rather arbitrary twist, Yeo-Jin decides that she will have sex with all of Jae-Young's clients and return their money. This is motivated by a desire to purify Jae-Young, by having sex, then giving the money back she can undo the acts that doomed Jae-Young and absolve her of her sins. When she is approaching the men, she refers to herself as Jae-Young and impersonates her up until the actual meeting. This touches on a similar dynamic as the latter half of Mulholland Drive, where Diane simultaneously wants to be Camilla and wants to be with Camilla. Yeo-Jin plays Jae-Young for the men, and by having sex with them, she is vicariously getting closer to her friend, and sharing the intimacy that they were never able to share during her life.

Through her encounters, she does bring happiness to people. One middle aged guy she's with ends up calling his daughter and reconnecting with her after the happiness that she brings to him, and another is stunned when she not only refuses to take his money, but actually pays him. This transaction serves as the bridge to the second half of the film, in which Yeo-Jin's father sees his daughter prostituting herself and becomes obsessively driven to vengeance.

The first half of the film doesn't exactly condone what the girls are doing, but it's all consensual, and the men they're with really seem to enjoy it, so it would seem like no harm done, but here we realize that even if Yeo-Jin isn't hurting herself, what she's doing is destroying her father. His actions begin by asking one of her clients what he was doing, and how old she was, but it gradually escalates, leading to two incidents of extreme violence. This film, much like Kim's other work, relies on extremely violent acts as punctuation mark, the ultimate expression of a character's emotion. In his films, violence is frequently equated with love, as in The Isle, when the girl shoves fishhooks where they should not go to show her love for a man, or in 3 Iron when a golfball assault on her husband serves to free the woman from a domestic prison.

Here, Yeo-Jin allows herself to be violated to show her love for Jae-Young, while her father relies on violent action against her clients as a way to preserve his daughter's purity. One of the most disturbing scenes is when the father goes to one of the client's house during a family dinner. He chastises the man for sleeping with a girl younger than his daughter and proceeds to walk out, only to find that the client has killed himself. The blood seeping into the frame is a harrowing image and shows the power of the guilt these men carry over violating the societal taboo. This scene is a marked contrast from the earlier scene when a man's experience with Yeo-Jin causes him to reconnect with his family. The entire prostitution arrangement exists in a perilous fantasy world that can be easily broken by an outsider, such as the father. His story culminates when he beats one of the clients to death in a public restroom and goes home to take a shower and wash the blood from his clothes. It's a really powerful image, serving to show just how far this man has fallen, while at the same time bringing to the fore the fact that he is unable to actually confront his daughter on the issue. He seeks to punish the entire world because he is too afraid to really admit to himself what his daughter is doing. By seeking revenge against the clients, he makes her the victim of a wrong, when in fact, she is the one seeking them out.

This leads in to the third section, titled Sonata. Concurrent with her father's breakdown is Yeo-Jin's decision to throw away Jae-Young's diary and give up her quest to undo her friend's actions. She has moved on, and has realized that what she's doing is just bringing guilt upon herself. Father and daughter drive out to her mother's grave where they quietly reflect on what's happened. The waterfront setting is classic Kim, and for a while here, I felt like the film was not exactly dragging, but not quite up to what it had been. The senile old man is a decent character, but it felt more like a distraction. Things pick up with Yeo-Jin's cleansing out by the water, as she cries, the enormity of her actions finally catching up with her.

The final sequence of the film is brilliant, working on a bunch of symbolic layers. At a stop on their way home, Yeo-Jin is pretending to drive the car. Her father sees this and realizes that his daughter isn't a child anymore, he needs to let her grow up. So he decides to teach her to drive, and they drive out to the middle of a swamp, in a shallow body of water. This leads to the blue tinted sequence, in which her father buries Yeo-Jin in the mud. This sequence was disturbing, but all the while I was hoping it was a dream, because I didn't like the idea that her father would actually want to kill Yeo-Jin for what she'd done. After all she'd been through, he clearly still loved her. So, I was happy when she woke up and it was a dream. We cut from an image of total cruelty to one of selfless love, as Yeo-Jin looks out a driving course her father has made for her, out of hand painted yellow stones. Seeing the love he lavished on her, all represented in this one image is very powerful and great filmmaking. Everything we need to know is contained in this image of his labor.

This leads to her father letting Yeo-Jin drive on her own, without his guidance, and she struggles calling for him. However, he's taken away by a mysterious car, apparently the police picking him up for the murder he committed. He empowers her, acknowledges her status as an adult, then is forced to leave her to fend for herself. She struggles to reach him, but is not skilled enough to catch up with the other car and finds herself alone on the road. The sequence addresses the issue that every parent and child face, the inevitable moment of separation, when a parent realizes that they can't protect their child from the world, and the child then has to fend for themself. The father thought he could save his daughter, but in the end he realizes she has to make her own choices, he can show her how to drive, but she has to choose the road. The ending lacks the overt enigmas of Kim's other films, but it really resonates on an emotional level. The film has moved from an outre story of those outside the norm to a relatable theme that applies to everyone.

What's so strong about the film is the way it subverts your expectations, avoiding the traditional payoffs in favor of more subtle, and real moments. The emotional dynamics always feel right and the story takes you in a lot of unexpected places, gradually evolving with each step and skillfully juggling multiple characters.

I still think 3 Iron is Kim's best film, because it worked so strongly on an emotional level, but this is a close second, also drawing on emotions and going a bit further thematically. Kim's use of music is really interesting in both films, usually it's silent, but when he does use a piece, it's frequently repeated to add thematic value. There's some heartbreaking musical moments here, perfectly accenting the scenes they're placed in.

On the whole, this is a really powerful film and yet another testament to the great stuff coming out of Asia at the moment. I feel like Asia today is Europe in the 50s, pushing the medium forward through its genre reconstruction, with a dynamic level of filmmaking that most American films don't even touch.


viagra online said...

I think it's a good topic and this way actually makes more sense because if you're watching the film you won't do it again, you probably already know the basic premise, and that would render those moments irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, i had trouble understanding the end, i thought he just got some friends to pick him up to abandon her.
Do you think he did not expect to be taken away so soon?

irish said...

I've just watched this movie.
Thank you very much for your insightful comment

Anonymous said...

Very sensitive observations, not many can see the truth of the film behind the shocking storyline and it is very gratifying to read the thoughts of someone who understands the depth of the meaning. Thank you for sharing you insights.

Anonymous said...

The father actually calls the police himself.