***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***
Now this one seemed like a straightforward evening watch, even for a Kim Ki-Duk film. But trust the guy to completely overthrow your expectations and take you on a journey you may never have experienced before. "Samaritan Girl" (2004) is yet another exotic dish from the Kim Ki-Duk kitchen, made from a recipe that is entirely his own. You just need to have the palate for it, and you will find yourself wholly appreciating what the South Korean auteur dishes out.
"Samaritan Girl" tells an unusual tale of sin and redemption that is both disturbing and sensitive at the same time. Two teenaged girls, resort to prostitution in order to raise money for a trip to Europe! Of course, they are very young and far too naive to realize the gravity or the consequences of their deeds. In a sordid arrangement, one of the girls, Jae-yeong (Yeo-reum Han) actually engages in the act, while her best friend Yeo-jin (Ji-min Kwak) does the job of setting her up with clients and acting as a lookout in order to warn about possible police raids. An incident with one of the clients, however, proves to be a watershed event that would change their lives forever.
For a plot premise that may seem like it would tread familiar grounds, "Samaritan Girl" changes its course significantly, at least twice, thereby totally subverting viewer expectations. It unfolds in an episodic fashion, over three parts with title cards: "Vasumitra", "Samaria" and "Sonata". The symbolic connection of these titles to what transpires in each episode serves as a means to comprehend the central thematic content of the film.
On a broad level, "Samaritan Girl" is all about carrying the burden of another; of paying for the sins of others. It is a direct biblical reference to Jesus Christ bearing the cross, also depicted literally in how in one scene, Yeo-jin carries an injured Jae-young on her back. It is no coincidence that Yeo-jin's father (Eol Lee), the cop mentions the story of a rotting crucifix which bears a bud almost miraculously.
The first episode talks about Vasumitra. In an old Indian legend, Vasumitra was a prostitute, whose clients all became Buddhists after sleeping with her. A carnal act, considered sinful, had somehow brought about a spiritual awakening in them. Jae-yeong, fascinated by this legend is practically obsessed with Vasumitra, and aspires to be like her. Sure enough, she manages to make an emotional connect with each client, ever smiling after each job and doing much more than just sex by engaging in some actual heart to heart talk!
Jae-young feels practically no remorse and in fact enjoys what she is doing, more so because of the connections she makes with her johns. Yeo-jin, however, reels under the guilt of being party to her friend's exploitation, and is the only one to feel the moral weight. Yeo-jin's jealousy is palpable as well, but Kim Ki-Duk keeps it deliberately ambiguous as to what kind of jealousy it is. While Yeo-jin obviously yearns for sex, she is perhaps morally bound, at least at that point of time. But her open admittance to Jae-yeong that she can't stand to see any guy touch "something this beautiful", and their naked baths together, hint at a definite homo-erotic attraction and a sense of possessiveness on Yeo-jin's part.
So where does Vasumitra fit in? Only after the baton is passed on to Yeo-jin in a dramatic turn of events, when she embarks on her path of supposed redemption. One of the outcomes of her actions is a visible change in the clients, as they either feel shame or regret their actions, experiencing a moral awakening and rekindling bonds with their daughters or loved ones! From filthy beasts to humans experiencing a kind of spiritual awakening; the Vasumitra legend mirrored! In a way, now Yeo-jin plays dual roles, of Vasumitra and of a Samaritan (Samaria), in her act of repentance.
The decision to sleep with each of Jae-young's client's is somewhat of an arbitrary move, that initially seems to be a product of a lack of maturity at a vulnerable age like that. Her twisted ideology is questionable, but perhaps this is her way of indirectly experiencing physical pleasure with Jae-young; a vicarious means of seeking sexual gratification from her best friend; that she desired but could never bring herself to seek out.
This inability to confront or speak out one's feelings is a trait that would continue further with Yeo-jin's father, a cop who inadvertently discovers that his daughter is out prostituting herself. The tough detective, himself investigating the killings of teens in shady motels, is now reduced to a broken, helpless father. A shattered man, he ultimately turns into a sort of watch dog, following his daughter's clients, and intimidating or shaming them. The incapacity to break the ice with his daughter on the matter, turns into a violent rage that the clients have to bear rather than the daughter, who is in fact the one inviting them on her own free will. Subsequently, these men find themselves at the receiving end for the sins of Yeo-jin!
The first few frames show a computer chat session, where it all starts and the girls fix meetings with their clients. Kim Ki-Duk perhaps aims at showing the ill effects of advanced technology and how they have created distances between human beings. It is alarming how the girls don't even know who's on the other end and yet agree to give themselves to them. The comfort of being bold from behind a screen has perhaps caused this inability to connect on a direct, personal level, directly reflected in Yeo-jin's dad's reluctance to confront her. It all stems from the advent of technology and the way it is gradually establishing its roots in our environment. The scene in which he puts headphones around here ears to wake her (and also in a surreal sequence later) seemed a little off-kilter initially but finds a significant overlap from this angle.
And therefore, what better place to connect, than the countryside, at one with nature and away from industrialization and technology? Maybe this is why, in the final chapter "Sonata", when Yeo-jin's father decides to take her on a trip to the country to her mother's grave, they are finally able to actually connect with their spiritual selves and to each other on an emotional level, without even bringing up anything that happened prior to the trip. The outing turns out to be a turning point in the lives of these two tormented souls; a moment of moral awakening, a means of catharsis and the ultimate gateway to salvation. Tears of regret are shed, sins are washed off, and there are realizations that enable both of them to attain their peace, in a culmination that is heartbreaking.
That final frame is bound to leave an indelible mark in your memory much like the rest of this haunting story. It's amazing how much meaning is conveyed merely through symbols, gestures and body language of these characters that you can't help but empathize with.
This is gold standard Kim Ki-Duk with his signature storytelling style with somber music, great images and a strong communication of his usually rich themes in his unique visual language.