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'Samaria,' a tale of prostitution and forgiveness

2004/02/28 Source

Among some moviegoers, scriptwriter and director Kim Ki-duk is respected as among the most original filmmakers of today, gifted with a fervid imagination of brutality and despair and the narrative talent to control them. To others, he's a disturbing and blunt fellow who dwells upon violence and voyeurism for a little too long in his naive view of the world as permanent purgatory. In a way, Kim has always been a combination of two very different animals. His individuals are tormented by a sense of deprival that leads them to desperate actions, which eventually come back to shatter what's left of them and those around. And yet, interestingly, Kim chooses to layout the extreme developments of action and emotion in a conventionally melodramatic way, an aspect evident in his use of women and sexual relations.

"Samaria", Kim Ki-duk`s film wraps three characters` lives around a girl`s voluntary journey into prostitution.

Kim's newest feature "Samaria", the director's 10th feature since his 1996 debut with "Alligator", is an extension of such characteristics, but delivered in reserved expressions compared to the director's earlier works such as "The Isle" (2000) and "Bad Guy" (2002), giving the film a rare conventional appeal but not compromising on its subjective intensity. Based on a bleak story of a school girl's self-inflicted prostitution and her father's murderous anger and despair, Kim builds a convincing drama over the contradiction between beauty and brutality, while cleverly avoiding graphic illustrations of sex and violence to enhance the dramatic effect. Fresh off Kim's winning of the Silver Bear for best director honors at the 54th annual Berlin Film Festival earlier this month, the highly anticipated film will open in local theaters on March 5.

The movie starts off with the camera capturing two schoolgirls sitting side by side in an Internet cafe. One girl, Yeo-jin, is hovering around online chat-rooms arranging deals with strangers willing to open their wallets for sex. Her friend, Jae-young, dreamily downloads pictures of Paris. It turns out that the girls are saving cash for a summer trip to Europe, with Jae-young bedding men for money and Yeo-jin being her friend's reluctant pimp.

Jae-young seemingly enjoys what she does and shows interest in her client's lives and past experiences, comparing herself to Vasumitra, a prostitute who according to an Indian legend converted the men she slept with to Buddhism. On the other hand, Yeo-jin is held captive by a sense of guilt, uneasy with the fact that she is cashing in on her friend's physical vulnerability and despising the men she talks into the deals.

One day, Jae-young dies after jumping off a hotel window while trying to escape a police bust, leaving Yeo-jin in a state of emotional collapse. Yeo-jin could come up with only one way to seek atonement and that is to have sex with all the men Jae-young had slept with and return their money. At this point, the personalities of Yeo-jin and Jae-young begin to merge, with Yeo-jin beginning to share her friend's compassion towards the men on The Contact list she has sex with.

However, Yeo-jin's personal search for serenity is not to be comprehended by her widowed policeman father, who accidentally discovers his daughter in the act and degenerates in despair and thirst for vengeance. He starts to track down her daughter's clients and beats them, leading to the suicide of one man and the killing of another.

Despite taking on such a disquieting subject matter, "Samaria" is a story told in a reserved composure that achieves cohesion between the development of events and individuality. The connection between the three characters and how their actions blend to consume their realities are provided with clarity within the narrative structure.

As with the characters in Kim's other films, the individuals in "Samaria" are locked in a game that nobody wins. Yeo-jin's attempt to find comfort in being her own version of Vasumitra is shattered after witnessing a blood splattered client lying motionless in a public toilet. The father, who could only see her daughter through the eyes of social condemnation, is never to escape from his sense of despair, with the extremeness of his anguish keeping him from confronting his daughter directly. The estrangements are covered up only with a melodramatic ending, with the father giving the daughter her first driving lessons in the countryside just before turning himself in for murder.

This is not to suggest that the film is flawless. Kim's attempt to make this film comprehensible is obvious and there are some scenes where he seems determined to announce his ideas rather than illustrating them. Kim had been saying all along that "Samaria" is about forgiveness, but his decision to place a scene where the father dreams of murdering Yeo-jin near the conclusion eats away at the movie's originality.

Despite the straightforwardness, "Samaria" is clearly a work that could be enjoyed both by Kim's loyalists or those who feel obliged to sit through his movies just to be culturally fashionable. Gwak Ji-min, in the role of Yeo-jin, delivers her role with adequate awareness, while Lee Uhl, in the role of the father, strikes a deft balance between frustration and a sense of irrevocability.

By Kim Tong-hyung

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