As is the case with any film that is known to drive people shocked and nauseated from film festival theaters, Kim Ki-duk's The Isle put him on the international map. Thankfully, he has proven himself to be a film maker to watch. While many of his films often contain dour themes and downright biblical violence, there is always an uncompromising intelligence clearly present and he's not just showing extremes in order to be provocative- though some critics disagree and have venomously pegged him as a brutal sensationalist. Recently he managed a much gentler feature, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring Again, that only solidified his reputation as one of the most important film makers coming out of Asia in the past decade.
Samaritan Girl (2004, aka. Samaria) concerns two teenage friends, the carefree Jae-young and the more serious Yoe-jin, who dream of going to Europe together. To realize this, Jae-young has been prostituting herself with Yoe-jin acting as her manager/bookkeeper/pimp. Yoe-jin is also the voice of reason, of concern, trying to keep Jae-young from taking the clients too lightly and also a bit jealous of the stolen affections.
Things take a tragic turn (other reviews and the back cover description state it as an "accident," however, I think it is open to interpretation- accident?-suicide?-sacrifice?) and Jae-young dies. Guilt-ridden and grieving, Yoe-jin, decides to return the money they made and, as a form of penance, sleeps with the clients. Her widower father, a detective, discovers her salacious activities and it shatters his world. His devastation leads to violence as he tracks her and then confronts a series of her customers.
The film is divided into three chapters- "Vasumitra" which introduces the girls and explores their bond. "Samaria" which follows Yoe-jin's actions after Jae-young's death and her father discovering his daughters secret life. Finally, the conclusion is titled "Sonata."
Like pretty much all of his works, in Samaritan Girl, Kim Ki-duk presents a straightforward story with a challenging theme. The best way I can think of to describe it, is an existentialist coming of age tale about loss of innocence. The controversial, discomforting, discussion point is in how Kim connects teenage sexuality, in risque fashion, to a kind of sainthood (evidenced in Jae-young's choice for her nickname, the clients re-evaluating sleeping with teenagers after their free/payback session with Yoe-jin, and the Yoe-jin naked nun promo/cover art which is never actually visualized in the film). It all ties together in heavy, metaphorical fashion to the end, from a fathers rage, to a fathers acceptance, and his letting go of his no longer so little girl.
It may be a tad discomforting for some, but Samaritan Girl's approach to sexuality and violence is fascinating and just as mixed message as you'd think someone combining Buddhist and Catholic philosophy would be prone to deliver. Yoe-jin begins justifiably judgmental of the men that sleep with her friend and then turns to a strange acceptance, finding something compassionate in the clients after she embraces Jae-young's attitude and selflessly turns her body over to them. Likewise, her father undergoes his own transformation. The initial shock of uncovering his daughters actions leads to an escalating rage; he goes from innocuously bumping into one man, to pelting rocks at anothers car, to breaking down the door of a johns home and interrogating him at his family dinner table, and, eventually, to committing the ultimate sin. Again, Kim see's this unhinged, breaking point as a sort of transcendence, the only way this father can accept his daughters deflowering.
Kim Ki-duk isn't afraid of traveling across a minefield, and luckily he has the defiant sense and cinematic skill to guide viewers into these difficult, philosophically probing territories. On the technical side, Samaritan Girl is often visually stunning and always precise in its direction, and Kim manages some excellent performances from his cast.
The DVD: Tartan Video
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen, 1.78:1. This transfer is relatively good. The print shows some occasional spots and a fair deal of grain, though the grain, like the soft focus backgrounds, appears to be an intended choice. Colors reflect the autumnal setting and the films bipolar tone, revealing some gorgeous color of changing leaves and mountainous backgrounds under a hazy Fall sky. It appears like most of the film was shot handheld, thus some image shakiness. In terms of transfer artefacts, some slight shimmer and minor background edge enhancement is present.
Sound: DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, or 2.0 Korean language tracks with optional English or Spanish subtitles. Very full bodied sound presentation, though the sound, befitting the film, is very straightforward and simple. It is very center based with the DTS and 5.1 surround tracks pushing the atmospherics to the sides a little, thus emphasizing the piano based score.
Extras: Surprisingly, Tartan really skips in the extras department, offering only a Photo Gallery and Trailers for a few of their releases but no trailer for the actual film. A shame they didn't at least grab up some of the promo spots or "making of" featurette from the Korean release.
Conclusion: Love him. Hate him. Call him pretentious. Call him a auteur genius. One thing is for certain, Kim Ki-duk doesn't make compromises with his approach to subject matter many directors would fear to touch. Personally, I'm increasingly impressed with his work, which continues to grow, and Samaritan Girl is just another example of this... The DVD presentation is a letdown in terms of extras but, in the film itself department, the image and sound are pretty good. Still, I like the film enough to lean on the side of a purchase, though, import savvy Kim Ki-duk fans will want to try elsewhere for editions with better extras.