Oct 7, 2009

Review Post 50: Thirst

DIR: Park Chan-wook
CAST: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-bin,
Shin Ha-kyun, Kim Hae-sook

Park Chan-wook’s latest has accidentally caught the zeitgeist, but he’s been planning this vampire movie for a decade.

I’ve wanted to see Thirst ever since I heard about the idea, just after Oldboy was released. Back then the only details available were that it would be a vampire film starring Park’s close friend and frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Memories of Murder) and that it would be called Evil Live. The title may have changed, but in those ten years the central idea of a Catholic priest who struggles to retain his faith when he becomes a vampire has remained. While retaining this basic central idea Park has wedded it to an adaptation of Zola’s Therese Raquin. I’ve not read the novel, but I understand that several of the characters (notably the older woman played by Kim Hae-sook) have direct parallels and that some key events, particularly a sequence in a fishing boat, are lifted from it. It’s to Park’s and co-screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyeong’s credit that the vampire story and the adaptation meld so beautifully.

Song Kang-ho is a wonderfully versatile actor, a favourite of Park and of Bong Joon-ho. He’s able to be the everyman, but also to convincingly go out on a limb. As Sang-hyun, Song does some of his best work to date. His struggle with his nature, his desire to embrace his vampirism and yet retain his Catholicism, to attempt not to sin, seems deeply felt and is beautifully played. I wonder if there has been some subtle effects work done on Song’s appearance, as the 42-year-old actor seems more youthful than he lately has on screen. Certainly he seems to have done some exercise for the part, losing much of the paunch he displayed in The Good, The Bad and the Weird. This really helps to sell Sang-hyun’s newfound vampirism. He’s a credible physical threat, without looking like an action hero. But it’s Song’s performance, rather than his look, that really carries Thirst. He gets the tone of the part absolutely right, playing absolutely straight even though the film is a very black comedy, and thus allowing us to get sucked into the character of Sang-hyun, and through him the story.

Blood isn’t the only thing that tempts Sang-hyun after he becomes a vampire; there is also sex, in the form of Kim Ok-bin as Tae-ju. Tae-ju is married to an old friend of Sang-hyun’s (eccentricly played by Shin Ha-kyun of Mr Vengeance and Save the Green Planet), but she begins an affair with the priest and soon persuades him to turn her into a vampire. Kim Ok-bin steals the whole movie. Tae-ju is a wonderful character; outwardly sweet and quiet, but underneath that she’s a scheming, slightly psychotic (witness the scene where she repeatedly pretends to stab her husband as he sleeps), temptress, and that’s before she becomes a vampire. When that happens Park lets her run riot, she lets herself off the leash completely, giving a wonderfully funny and creepy performance as a woman revelling in her vampirism. Sang-hyun has always taken his blood from a friend lying in a coma, and has been careful not to kill, but Tae-ju kills with giddy abandon, saying that it’s more fun, and besides, it tastes better.

Kim Ok-bin’s performance helps make the last third of Thirst its funniest passage, but the entire film has a rich vein of comedy running through it. This is one of Park’s trademarks; he freely mixes deadly serious ideas (here murder, relationships and the nature of faith) with absurd moments. The funniest thing in Thirst is Kim Hae-sook’s performance in the last part of the film. After Tae-ju becomes a vampire her mother is paralysed, but she still has all her wits about her. In one riotous scene Tae-ju’s mother tries to tell the friends that Tae-ju and Sang-hyun are playing Mahjong with that her daughter and the priest are killers, using only her one mobile finger and her eyes.

Oldboy may have announced Park Chan-wook on the international stage, but his work both before and since that film confirms his status as one of the major talents in world cinema. To say that Thirst doesn’t represent his best work is true, but hardly an indictment. The only moment at which Park’s control of the film seems to slip is late in the second act and early in the third, when it runs a little off the rails and a couple of plot points go under explained. However, with the help of his excellent cast, he recovers and takes the film out with half an hour of brilliance. All Park’s films are beautiful, and this is no exception. The colours are extraordinary, with Tae-ju’s blue dress (an homage to one of Park’s inspirations; Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession) and the impossibly vivid red of blood on the brilliant white floor of Sang-hyun and Tae-ju’s lair standing out in particular. CGI is sparingly used, and the effects are always used to a purpose and extremely high quality. It’s hard to describe why Park Chan-wook’s films are such a pleasure to look at, because there is just so much to talk about. Every one of his frames is suffused with diverting and beautiful detail, so much so that you could probably watch this film without its soundtrack and still get a great deal out of it - not something that can be said about most movies.

Thirst is a rich, tasty, treat for horror fans. Park doesn’t stint on the sex and violence that you expect in the genre, but he delivers it with intelligence and wit, and in conjunction with a literate, thoughtful, script and performances of great depth and quality. Make no mistake, even though this film isn’t quite up to the amazing standard set by Oldboy and Lady Vengeance it still offers further proof that Park Chan-wook is one of the great filmmakers of our time, and I suspect it will only become more rewarding with repeat viewing.

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