Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Thirst" by Park Chan-Wook

With all the teen-vampire fanaticism, the foreign art-film take on Dracula might pass you by. However, the Swedish Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In,” and the Korean Park Chan-Wook’s “Thirst” are original romances where bloodlust is anything but skin deep. Park is best known for his vengeance triology, (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Old Boy”, and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”). In these films, characters who are subjected to violence become heroes when they retaliate with elaborate murder schemes. One suffers through gore in his films’ first half, but the conclusive proof of justice is in fact more blood and pain. Eventually, the carnage becomes more delicious than disgusting, for it is all shed in the name of fairness.

The plot of “Thirst” is primarily shaped by Emil Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867). However, Park sets the naturalist French novel in modern day South Korea, and uses vampirism as a metaphor for the novel’s tragic, addictive love affair. Perhaps Park’s most inventive touch was to rewrite Zola’s Laurent, a gambler who can no longer afford the brothel, as a moral priest (Priest Sang-hyien is played by Kang-ho Sang, who also played the lead in Park’s 2002 breakthrough film, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.”) The film openly references Robert Bresson’s 1951 classic “Diary of a Country Priest” as Sang-hyien explains his struggle to suppress sexual desire in a voice-over while vigorously writing in a journal. The priest punishes himself by whacking his penis with a wooden stick when it becomes erect. When this does not suffice, he participates in a dangerous medical study in South Africa. There, ignorant doctors infect Sang-hyien with the vampire virus through a blood transfusion. When he returns to Korea, his sexual desire for Tae-joo (Ok-viri Kim), the wife of his sickly childhood friend, marries a new obscene desire for human blood.

The sex scenes between Ok-viri Kim and Kang-ho Sang are reminiscent of the best of David Cronenberg and Catherine Breillat, exploring passion from both perspectives with animalistic flare. The sniffing, sucking, licking, and biting, is as audible as visual; in a particularly sensuous moment Sang-hyien gives two long strokes of the tongue to Tae-joo’s clean pale arm pit. The film is reliant on their chemistry, as their addiction to blood and to each other spawns the jealousy and torment that become their ultimate downfall. Kang-ho Sang’s striking good looks make him the seductive vampire, while his awkwardness and inconsistent righteousness, demonstrate his character’s contradiction. As in “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” Park transgresses gender roles to make the female lead a physical force with which to be reckoned. In fact, Tae-joo’s intermingles her desire for blood and her desire for revenge on her in-laws. Ok-viri Kim as Tae-joo shows timing and character development, first shy and needy, as a vampire she is bold and selfish with hunger. Blue costumes and white powder aid her transformation into a shining ravenous imp.

The violence of “Thirst” is not as startling or as realistic as Park’s best films, and the CGI that normally ties scenes together, at times appears too animated (when Tae-joo and Sang-hyien bounce from rooftop to rooftop one remembers early Nintendo.) Yet the characters’ complexity and strength, and the modernization of the 19th century storyline, render “Thirst” a fascinating chapter in the recent Global North vampire frenzy. Park Chan-Wook couples the actors’ intensity with self-awareness, directing a film that is as tragic and true as it is humorous.

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