Samaritan Girl is Kim’s best film since The Isle, and along with Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring it signals an interesting new direction for the maverick filmmaker. Kim has slightly softened his approach and turned his focus to broader spiritual, rather than specific social, issues. Gone are moments such as the frozen swordfish turned lethal weapon scene in Wild Animals. Violence in Kim’s films has now got a lot less to do with men slapping, molesting and relentlessly staring at women (Bad Guy), or making the audience extremely uncomfortable due to the offscreen application of fish hooks (The Isle). Kim’s work is now more involved with the self-infliction of violence and the internalisation of conflict.
Samaritan Girl is ultimately a film about the consequences of carrying around the baggage of Catholic sin and guilt. Kim was apparently raised a Catholic, just as his main character Yeo-jin is. (This fact, and the tragic conclusions that Samaritan Girl draws, lead me to believe even less in the official story regarding Kim’s insertion of himself into the Winter segment of Spring, Summer. There is clearly some authorial catharsis going on there, regardless of whether the actor who was supposed to play the role didn’t turn up, as Kim has claimed, or was never cast in the first place.) If you’re like me, the fact that everyone says this film is about religion might sound like a deterrent. Don’t let it stop you, though, because (a) there’s another story going on, and (b) it isn’t necessary to figure out what the film (might) mean in order to enjoy it. What’s the other story? Well, call me a simpleton, but I actually thought this was about Yeo-jin dealing with the pain of losing Jae-young, her lover. Yeo-jin’s father suffers loss too: his idealised image of a virtous daughter. Of course, both losses also call attention to the third, absent loss of the mother/wife before the plot commences. These characters are clearly already devastated. The tragedy that follows (ie. the plot) is really just the savage kick in the guts when they’re already on the ground, bleeding (now that is definitely a Korean movie).
How is this enjoyable? I have to admit that I’ve been thinking about Samaritan Girl‘s narrative for days. It’s one of those films. Very little is explained, so you have to do expend some mental energy if you want to understand what a character is thinking and feeling at a certain moment. Kim doesn’t make films for mainstream Korean audiences, who prefer commercial entertainment to thought provoking international arthouse works, which is essentially how Samaritan Girl and Kim’s other films are typed. It really doesn’t help to call him a ‘Korean’ filmmaker. The ethnic Koreans populating his films and the Korean landscapes depicted in them are simply the specific variables of a more general art cinema form.
After explorations of red light districts, foreign nations, the demilitarised zone, pokey rural towns, and several astonishingly pretty lakes, Kim has finally embraced the average Seoul streetscape here. Much of the dramatic tension is unwound in small hotel rooms, anonymous street corners and pulic amenities. The film may end in the countryside, but when Yeo-jin’s father marks out an artifical road in yellow paint it recalls the ever-presence of the city. (So too does the endless stream of cars on the winding roads in the far background). Kim also doubles as the set dresser, perhaps because he shoots on location most of the time but also because he wants screen space to be left sparse. A CD player and a few important trinkets and photos decorate Yeo-jin’s room, which feels less like teenagers bedroom (one full of posters and toys and all those other populist constructions of identity) than a place to sleep and do not much else.
Beyond all the horrendous sights it offers and emotions it presents, there is a serenity to Samaritan Girl that I think indicates Kim’s maturity. He may be one of the current bad boys of Korean and World Cinema, but only for the sake of publicity. Those who like his films don’t see themselves as society’s peripheral agents of sadism and chaos, you know (fans of the wonderfully safe SSFWS might swing too far the other way, but that’s another gripe). The marketing gurus are falling way behind the hip audiences, who have known for a while now that Kim Ki-duk’s recent adventures in minimalism have resulted in some very sensitive, though still controversial and provocative, creations.