NOTE: Please be aware that this DVD is a Chinese import and is coded for Region 3 DVD players. In order to view this DVD, you'll have to have either a Region 3 coded or Region Free DVD player. It will not play in standard Region 1 North American DVD players.
Korean art house/horror/drama director Kim Ki-Duk quickly made a name for himself with North American audiences with his incredibly bleak romantic thriller, The Isle. It was a gorgeous looking film with an interesting story, strong performances, and some very compelling, if disturbing, themes and images. His latest film, Samaritan Girl (also known as Samaria.) doesn't go quite as far in the sex and violence department but still proves that Kim has a nack for the unusual and the morose, as well as a strong eye for symbolic storytelling.
Jae-Young (Min-jeong Seo) is a teenage prostitute who works the local 'johns' in Seoul so that she can earn enough money for her and her friend, Yeo-Jin (Ji-min Kwak), to go away to Europe together. Yeo-Jin works as her pimp in a sense, as she arranges meeting times and places, handles the financial side of things, and plays look out for Jae-Young while she's working to make sure that the local police don't get in the way. Yeo-Jin also gets very jealous whenever her friend shows any interest whatsoever in any of the customers that she services, requesting that she not talk to the men anymore than she has to in order to get the job done, and to not let herself get emotionally attached to these men who are simply using her for quick and casual sex. In short, she cares about her friend and doesn't want her getting attached to a man who is taking advantage of her for purely selfish, physical reasons.
While out working one day, the pair get into trouble. Yeo-Jin becomes distracted while playing look out and the cops end up walking in on Jae-Young while she is in a hotel in bed with a customer. Rather than get caught by the police and face the humiliation that would ensue, Jae-Young jumps out of the hotel window from a few stories up, and cracks her head open when she lands. Yeo-Jin piggybacks her to the hospital where she makes the dying request to see the one 'john' that she really liked. Yeo-Jin eventually obliges and goes to fetch him, but he only agrees to go if Yeo-Jin will sleep with him. She does, out of desperation for her friend who lays on her death bed, and they head off to the emergency room just minutes after Jae-Young has died.
In order to make amends for herself and to ease the guilt she feels over her friend's heath, Yeo-Jin uses Jae-Young's diary and contact book to find every man that she was paid to sleep with. She tells them that she's Jae-Young and that she wants to see them again. When they arrive, she sleeps with them for free, and returns the money that they initially paid to Jae-Young. Unfortunately for Yeo-Jin, her father (Eol Lee), who is a police detective, happens to be investigating a murder that took place across the street from one of the hotel rooms that Yeo-Jin uses to do her business in. When he looks out the window he sees his young daughter sleeping with a considerably older man and soon puts two and two together and starts to figure out what is going on. When he does, he snaps a little bit, and decides to take care of things his way so that he can not only get his daughter to stop sleeping around, but to ensure that the men she slept with learn their lesson - or at least it seems that way at first glance.
This isn't a 'hooker with a heart of gold' story like Pretty Woman or something superficial like that. This is a dark story punctuated with some shocking moments of stark violence that deals with the rather taboo subject of teenage prostitution and underage sex workers. Hardly feel good movie of the year material, it's a bleak movie with strong melancholy veins running through it from the word 'go.' At the same time, Samaritan Girl is a beautifully made film chock full of symbolism and some less than subtle Biblical references that deals with the loss of innocence and the lengths to which a father will go to sacrifice himself to save his daughter from society's corrupting influence.
While the ending may, on the surface at least, seem rather simple and ambiguous, it actually makes perfect sense when you compare it to the stories that Yeo-Jin's father tells her on the way to school. His revenge seems to be an effort to take the weight of her burden on himself (the ending would seem to implicate this very same thing). The symbolism or deeper meaning behind the words Samaria or Samaritan Girl are likely references to Christ's meeting with a Samaritan prostitute from the Book of John, or possibly a reference to the 'good Samaritan' parable, which could relate to the way that both Yeo-Jin and Jae-Young interacted with their clients. Though that's certainly not the way that the Bible would say you should communicate with people or help them out along the way, in a sense these girls were bringing a brief moment of happiness to men who were unable, unwilling or just plain too pathetic to find it with women on their own.
The cinematography is simply gorgeous throughout the film. The camera brings you close enough into the girls' world that you can empathize with them but not so close that the film ever ventures into the realm of bad taste (which, given the subject matter, would have been easy to do). Take the shower room sequences, for example. The shots are framed in a such a way that we know Yeo-Jin is trying to cleanse her friend and express her love and concern for her while all of this is going on, but never in a way that seems meant to titillate or provoke some sort of sexual reaction despite the way that the girls are holding one another.
While the movie may seem slow, it is in fact quite deliberate in its pacing and the story unfolds in a manner that effectively builds tension without rushing things, instead letting the three principal cast members deliver strong performances. Eol Lee especially, as Yeo-Jin's father, plays the most sympathetic of the three, even when he is out exacting revenge on those who defiled his young daughter. Either conciously or subconciously he refuses to let grow up on her own terms in spite of the fact that he only wants the best for his child. It's strong stuff, to be sure, but it's an incredibly well made film that, much like The Isle, is full of meaning, beauty, and ugliness all at the same time.
The 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen picture could be better. While there's a pretty decent level of detail present in the image, and color reproduction looks pretty solid, for a film so recent there is an inordinate amount of print damage present on the source material used for this transfer, and Panorama hasn't made any effort to clean it up at all. Most of the damage comes in the form of specks here and there, but at one point in time you can see a hair on the bottom of the image, and there are a couple of vertical scratches in a few scenes. None of it is overly severe, but it is there and you will likely notice it.
Print damage aside, the picture quality isn't too bad. There is some edge enhancement smattered about the film, and the odd instance of mild compression artifacts in a couple of the darker scenes, but these are few and far between and don't prove to be too much of a distraction.
You have your choice of watching the film in its original Korean language in either Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound or Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. There is also a Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound option, and there are removable subtitles available in English and Chinese. The Chinese dub looks pretty forced, as the lips don't match up with the words very well, so unless you're fluent in Chinese you'll be wanting to watch this one in its original Korean language anyway (obviously). The English subtitles are clean and easy to read and I only noticed one minor typographical error while watching the film. The Korean 5.1 track is the best one on the disc – dialogue comes through nice and clear and the soundtrack and background music are mixed in properly and balanced quite nicely. There are no problems with hiss or distortion. While there could have been a little bit more use made of the rear surround channels in a few spots, overall this is a nice mix that suits the movie just fine.
Aside from chapter selection and an outer slipcase for the packaging, there are no extra features at all on this release. None of the extra features from the Korean DVD have been ported over to this Hong Kong release.
Samaritan Girl is a pretty bleak film that isn't likely to appeal to a mass audience, but for those with the patience for a slow and deliberately paced art house/drama, it comes recommended. The cinematography is gorgeous and the performances from the three leads are very good. Highly Recommended (on the strength of the film more so than the presentation on the DVD).
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.