Korean helmer Kim Ki-duk maintains a more mature, assured outlook with his 10th feature. Slightly abstract tale of a cop who tries to cope with the knowledge his dutiful teenage daughter is moonlighting as a hooker contains many thematic elements of Kim's earlier, angrier pics. Arthouse pickups look to be in the cards.

After passing through the spiritual gate of “Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall … and Spring,” Korean helmer Kim Ki-duk maintains a more mature, assured outlook with his 10th feature, “Samaritan Girl.” Slightly abstract tale of a cop who tries to cope with the knowledge his dutiful teenage daughter is moonlighting as a hooker contains many thematic elements of Kim’s earlier, angrier pics, especially “Bad Guy” (2001), but the potent material is handled in a cooler, more transcendental way. Arthouse pickups for “Girl” look to be in the cards, though some auds may still have difficulty with Kim’s offbeat, non-judgmental approach.

Where “Bad Guy” dealt with a man who revenges himself on a college girl by turning her into a whore, current pic plays almost like the flip side. Here, the high-school protag (whose exact age is never specified) undertakes sex with men simply to rid herself of guilt over a girl friend’s death; the pain is mostly her father’s. Though the pic is non-denominational, there’s enough play with religious themes like guilt, expiation and the holy-whore syndrome to hook into western belief-systems like Catholicism.

Divided into three half-hour segments, film kicks off with “Vasumitra,” after the name of a prostitute from a classic Indian tale whose clients were turned into Buddhists. Pic intros Yeo-jin (Gwak Ji-min) and her soulmate, Jae-yeong (Seo Min-jung), who are saving money for a trip to Europe. Pretty, carefree Jae-yeong has no hesitation in bedding guys in hotel rooms for money (“men are like babies when they have sex”), and Yeo-jin acts as her manager.

Though Yeo-jin thinks all the johns are “bastards,” and is uneasy with them touching her friend’s body, Jae-yeong enjoys the seshes, and falls for one of the guys, a musician (Oh Yong). After Jae-yeong jumps from a window during a police bust, and Yeo-jin carries her, bleeding, to a hospital, Jae-yeong’s final wish is to see the musician again. Out of love for her pal, Yeo-jin sacrifices her own virginity to persuade the reluctant john to visit Jae-yeong’s deathbed.

Newcomers to Kim’s emotionally extreme universe will either have tuned in or out of the pic by now, though compared with many of his earlier movies, the material is handled very differently. Wisely, Kim has opted not to show the sex scenes, and there’s tenderness (with gently lyrical music) in those sequences sketching the girls’ friendship — playing in a park together, or bonding in a Korean-style bathhouse.

Though the film’s visual style is simple, bathed in the cool, hard light of a Korean autumn, there’s a slightly abstract feel to the movie that makes the goings-on acceptable, so long as auds take the leap. Throughout, Kim plays with audience expectations built up over his previous pics: you never quite know what’s going to happen next, or whether the writer-helmer is going to slip back into his previous, more heated style.

Second seg, entitled “Samaria” (which plays on both “Santa Maria” and “Samaritan”), has Yeo-jin vowing to return to the johns all the money Jae-yeong earned, resulting in some ironically humorous sequences as she first sleeps with them and then, to their surprise, reverses convention by giving them money. At the halfway point, however, the film shifts focus to Yeo-jin’s widowed father, Yeong-gi (Lee Eol), a hard-nosed cop who’s accidentally discovered his daughter playing hooky as a hooker and, unknown to her, confronts each john on the street.

It’s here, and in the final section (“Sonata”), that the tension really kicks in, as Yeong-gi gives Yeo-jin every chance to confess her hidden actions without revealing his own knowledge. Until the final moments, the viewer is kept in suspense over whether father or daughter are going to pull the pins on the emotional grenades each carries within them.

Distaff leads Gwak and Seo, both first-time thesps who are real high-school students, are aces in their difficult roles. Seo exactly conveys the mixture of innocence and ingenuousness, tinged with a touch of madness, to make Jae-yeong believable on the film’s slightly surreal level; and Gwak, as the plainer-looking Yeo-jin, who hides a sharp tongue under her dutiful exterior, grows considerably as the film progresses. Lee (“Waikiki Brothers”), the only recognizable thesp in the cast, underplays the father to potent effect.

Tech credits hark back to Kim’s much earlier movies, stripped back and unadorned, on a budget. In print caught, some occasional drop-out in sound is noticeable in dialogue passages, but could easily be rectified.

Samaritan Girl

South Korea

Production

A Show East release of a Kim Ki-duk Film production. (International sales: Cineclick Asia, Seoul.) Produced by Bae Jeong-min. Executive producer, Kim Dong-ju. Co-executive producer, Kim Yun-ho. Directed, written, edited by Kim Ki-duk.

Crew

Camera (color), Sun Sang-jae; music, Park Ji; art director, Kim; costume designer, Lim Seung-heui; sound (Dolby SRD), Song Ye-jin, Park Sang-gyun, Kim Sung-dal; assistant director, Jang Cheol-su. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 10, 2004. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Yeong-gi - Lee Eol Yeo-jin - Gwak Ji-min Jae-yeong - Seo Min-jung Censor seller #1 - Gweon Hyeon-min Musician - Oh Yong Neat guy - Im Gyun-ho Tough guy - Jung Yun-su Lucky guy - Lee Jeong-gil Guy who kills himself - Shin Taek-gi Guy who gets killed - Park Jung-gi Censor seller #2 - Kim Gwi-seon Guy in his 30s - Seo Seung-weon Passer-by - Yu Jae-ik Gi-su - Jung In-gi Cops - Jeon Jin-bae, Yuk Sae-jin Wife of guy who kills himself - Hong Hye-ryung Daughter of guy who kills himself - Seol Han-sol

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