Tuesday, December 8, 2009
If Martin Scorsese made a vampire movie, I'd wager it wouldn't be too terribly different from Thirst, the latest film from Park Chan-wook, the preeminent Korean director of horror-thrillers. Park established himself as a talent with a mind for twisted stories and immaculate construction to capture them, and Thirst displays his most serious concerns yet as a filmmaker. His Vengeance Trilogy covered not only its titular subject but familial relationships and morality, but Thirst delves far deeper into the latter subject than the artist has heretofore gone, framing his vampire flick around that most tortuous of religious hangups: Catholic guilt.
The world in which Father Sang-hyun lives is largely without sunlight from the start, lit in a cold blue tint that makes every location -- including interiors -- seem covered in night. Sang-hyun is locally beloved for his kindness; he spends his days at the hospital, gently administering the last rites and making himself useful to the staff in any way he can. Beneath that holy veneer, however, lies crippling self-doubt. He's witness to the miracle of science everyday -- he even advises a confessor, in an otherwise traditional exchange, to take anti-depressants -- and he feels that he contributes nothing more than a few hollow words of comfort for the dying.
So, he decides to volunteer to be a guinea pig for a vaccine for a deadly new disease called the Emmanuel Virus, willing to risk a fatal infection for the chance to save just one life. Sang-hyun indeed contracts the virus, though after a blood transfusion he miraculously recovers, and the priest, while uncomfortable with the attention he receives, finds a solace in the belief that he is the beneficiary of God's love. Until he wakes up one morning with sunlight burning his flesh, that is.
Korean superstar Song Kang-ho, a Park alumnus, is the ideal choice to play a vampire. He's 42, but with his glasses and innocent face, he looks at the start of the film as though he just left the seminary. It's like he stopped aging before he became an undead beast -- also, he looks in these early scenes like a Korean Dylan Moran. But his new vampire DNA unleashes all the pent-up desires he suppressed as a priest, incapable of restricting his hunger or sexual lust, and Song tweaks his facial language from innocence to the sophisticated evil that the vampire myth exudes. He engages in an affair with Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), the wife of his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) trapped in a boring suburban hell. Kim too displays a remarkable ability to shift gears into an entirely different performance when Tae-ju's own life takes a turn for the worse/better.
Those who have enjoyed or even hated Park Chan-wook's other films should expect a clear visual acumen, and Park certainly knows how to create a mood with his subversively graceful camera movements and operatic structuring. That blue hue works to unsettle us but also works as a bit of a gag at times -- Sang-hyun's blind superior at the monastery asks to be converted into a vampire so that his eyes might heal. "You want to see this dark world so badly?" Sang-hyun, having experienced the terrible vices of the world, bitterly responds, though he might be speaking quite literally (and, of course, a vampire can only go out at night). When Sang-hyun and Tae-ju repaint their apartment stark white to resemble daylight, the blinding effect is jarring, more so when a spurt of red occasionally splashes upon the wall or floor.
Park uses the vampire curse ostensibly to comment upon a mass loss of faith in the world; after wrestling with his doubts, Sang-hyun becomes a classical creature of pure evil. Renouncing his religion, he falls into pure sexual and violent decadence. Is Park saying that, without religion and religious morality to guide us, we might all turn into hedonistic demons? Perhaps, but that doesn't explain Tae-ju; we meet her as a reserved wife adhering to her socially obligated role, catering to her sickly and disgusting husband and his demanding mother. When Sang-hyun turns her, however, she becomes a nightmarish flurry of deadly eroticism and unhinged bloodlust. Free of her bourgeois ennui, Tae-ju becomes an undead hybrid of Lady Bathory and Lady Macbeth, deriving psychosexual gratification from killing humans where Sang-hyun still strives not to hurt others. Through these characters, Park comments on the way that the social norms that constrict and stunt our lives from birth only serve to build up rage and resentment that, if ever allowed an outlet, can be too terrible for society to comprehend. I was trying my best to avoid comparisons to that other vamp romance flick of '09, but now I see that they're both really about repression, albeit only one of them treats stifling social and religious upbringing with severity.
However, let's not get carried away and say that Thirst is an attack on religion: Park spends ample time charting Sang-hyun self-loathing and guilt. Near the end of the film, he infiltrates a camp of unofficial followers still clinging to the notion of him as a miracle worker and stages a crime -- or intends to actually commit one; it's not entirely clear -- to break them of their enchantment. On one hand, this disenfranchised ex-believer is doing his part to shatter the faiths of others; on the other, he's destroying the golden calf that the wicked worship, only in this scenario he is himself the idol. Song plays his character like the evolutionary link between Harvey Keitel's role in Mean Streets and his role in Bad Lieutenant: we meet him as a man struggling with faith, then we see a man lost to his vices before coming to terms with the faith he lost.
In many respects, Thirst is a giant step forward for Park: his two leads give the best performances to grace one of his films (pace, Choi Min-sik) and he explores the film's themes with more scrutiny than he gave to the messages behind his Vengeance films. However, he's attempting with the film to juggle horror, Gothic romance and comedy -- a riotous running gag involves a vision of the bloated corpse of Tae-ju's murdered husband literally coming between the lovers -- and as a result the film hits the wall at various sections, causing the film to move in fits and spurts when it's clearly trying to be a fluid piece. Furthermore, a scene where the two vampires leap across rooftops is poorly executed, with Park taking some ill-advised POV shots that reveal some bad effects and animation. But even if it takes two steps backwards for the hefty step forward, Thirst is an even stronger argument for Park's relevancy and the wealth of potential he's still yet to show than his finest work to date, Oldboy.