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Religion and Sex a Disturbing Combination in 'Samaria'

2004/03/04 | Permalink | Source

By Joon Soh
Staff Reporter
Religion seems to be on director Kim Ki-duk's mind as of late. After last year's contemplative "Pom Yorum Kaul Kyoul Kurigo Pom (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring)", which looked at the cycle of suffering from a perspective of a Buddhist monk, Kim layers "Samaria", his new film about teenage prostitution, with variations on Catholic concepts of sin and guilt.

Unlike "", however, the film doesn't extensively rely on religious iconography to generate meaning. Rather, it's a springboard for what seems a rather personal take on the psychological and moral battles that has plagued Kim throughout his career, always with provocative results.

The moral battleground in this film is a particularly sensitive one _ that of "wonjo kyoje", the phenomenon of older men who pay young high school girls for sex and companionship. Kim begins the story with two students, Chae-yong (Seo Min-jung) and Yo-jin (Kwak Ji-min), who attempt to use prostitution to pay for a trip to Europe, but who have differing perspectives on what their actions mean.

For Chae-yong, who at first is the only one who meets directly with clients, the transactions with the older men are more than about money. Speaking frequently of Vasumitra, a mythical Indian prostitute who used sex to help men gain enlightenment, Chae-yong sees her actions in a spiritual light that appears to her friend So-jin, and to the audience, as misguided.

However, after a tragedy befalls Chae-yong, So-jin also begins to use sexual relationships with older men as a way to alleviate her guilt. The troubled girl's actions are overlaid with the notion of penance as well as, strangely, the idea of a Samaritan.

To see the young girls in religious terms, especially as figures sacrificing themselves for the spiritual good of others, is disturbing to say the least. And Kim's presentation of the older men, whose neediness and deceitfulness often contradict the two girls' actions, adds fuel to the moral puzzle rather than explain it.

But those who have seen Kim's other films have come not to expect straightforward answers from the controversial filmmaker, who received the Silver Bear for best director at this year's Berlin for the film. Made in 11 days with a minimal budget, "Samaria" creates a tense mood that lets the different trains of thought interact while avoiding making a specific stand.

The mood is especially successful in the powerful and painful latter half of the film, when So-jin's father (Lee Ueol) becomes aware of his daughter's actions and responds with an odd combination of forgiveness and revenge. Like "", the overall effect is less volatile and more lyrical than Kim's earlier works, but it's no less effective.

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