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Unquenchable 'Thirst'

2009/08/03 Source

Park Chan-wook's latest is a masterpiece of spiritual horror
Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a tormented priest, volunteers as a human guinea pig at an African research facility, working on a vaccine for a virulent virus called EV (which only infects celibate or sexually inactive men). The virus kills him, but he is miraculously resurrected by a blood transfusion. Unfortunately, the miracle comes with a serious side effect: he turns into a vampire. Only a continuous supply of fresh human blood can reverse the symptoms of EV infection. While grappling with his disturbing new habit (and superpowers), Sang-hyun becomes attracted to Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), unhappily married to his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), a bizarrely infantile hypochondriac living under the thumb of his manic dressmaker mother Ms. Ra (Kim Hae-soo).

"Thirst" which opens stateside on July 31, following a solid distribution deal with Universal Pictures, has so far been the most controversial Korean film of 2009. Many critics and viewers have blasted it as a pretentious bore or a poorly conceived adaptation of Emile Zola's "Therese Raquin" (from which this film borrows certain plot points and a central love triangle): only a few critics hailed the film as a masterpiece. I happen to belong to the latter group.

Thematically, the movie is as relentless as any Euro-American film I have ever seen on the exploration of Catholic guilt. The protagonist Sang-hyun, like Graham Greene's Scobie in "The Heart of the Matter", is tragically, sympathetically flawed. He has enough dedication to face certain death in the service of humanity yet cannot stop his feelings of pity toward a beautiful, unhappy young woman grow into passionate love. He is powerless to stop the faithful who regard his vampirism as a sign of being touched by God: having committed a mortal sin out of love, he figuratively and literally drowns in guilt. Song Kang-ho gives yet another brilliant performance as Sang-hyun, but it is not a flashy one: it's a catcher's turn that perfectly anchors the emotional content of a particular scene and at the same time, generously puts the spotlight on the other actors.

A lot of media attention has been paid to the explicit sex scenes between Song and Kim Ok-vin, which is an interesting choice on Park's part. He seems to have had a young Isabelle Adjani in mind: fiery, heartbreaking, maybe a bit raw. Kim is stunningly sexy in both wilted-housewife and full-blown femme fatale modes, and throws all of herself into the role. But I cannot help but seeing Yum Jung-ah (who appeared as a fictional vampire in Park's "The Cut" from "Three, Monster") or Lee Young-ae as Tae-ju. Kim strikes me as a bit too young and contemporary: she does not strike as someone who could have tolerated long years of indentured servitude in exchange for meager domestic comfort. She is blindingly beautiful, I must admit, in a blue hanbok.

By now we expect not only high quality work but also extraordinary aesthetic achievements from Park Chan-wook's regular staff, and "Thirst" certainly does not disappoint. Production designer Ryoo Seong-hee is responsible for the uncommonly reined-in colors: bleached white and faded green of the religious and medical institutions as well as ever-so-slightly off-kilter hues of Ms. Ra's deranged blues and slick browns. Lenser Jeong Jeong-hoon weaves pure magic with shadows and light, culminating in the stunning vista of the ocean spreading in scarlet red, illuminated by the setting sun, as looked on by the eyes of the doomed protagonist.

And for the life of me, I don't understand people who are confused about the genre-film identity of "Thirst". What could it be other than a vampire film, for God's sakes? What, you expected Song Kang-ho to be sparkling like a rainbow under the sunlight, a la "Twilight"? In this film, blood flows abundantly in horrendous, cringe-inducing scenes, and there are many insanely creative twists on the familiar genre staples that will either stun you into silence or make you gape in disbelief, fully matching the "single-take corridor fight scene" in "Old Boy" for their impact.

But "Thirst" is not an exhilarating showcase of directorial vision and film-making pizzazz that "Old Boy" was. Despite occasional insertions of absurdist deadpan humor, it is basically a tragic romance. And despite much bloodletting, the film is not interested in generating frisson of fear, but a deep sense of melancholy. In the end it returns, perhaps in a purer form than ever, to Park Chan-wook's starting point in his cinematic career: the torturous reflection on the impossibility of salvation, the moral weight of sin and desire, and the agonizing scream of a man against God who may or may not exist, and may or may not love him.

Beautiful, disgusting, haunting, moving and mysterious, "Thirst" is not an easy movie to decipher, but will bountifully reward adventurous and open-minded viewers.

2009 OhmyNews

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