박쥐 (Thirst)

박쥐 (Thirst)

A Moho Film Production
Distribution: CJ Entertainment
Rating: 18 and Over
Genre: Vampire Drama
Running Time: 133 Min
Shooting Time: N/A
Release: 2009/Apr/30

WITH 송강호 (Song Kang-Ho) as Sang-Hyun; 김옥빈 (Kim Ok-Bin) as Tae-Joo; 김해숙 (Kim Hae-Sook) as Lady Ra; 신하균 (Shin Ha-Gyun) as Kang-Woo; 박인환 (Park In-Hwan) as Elder Priest; 송영창 (Song Young-Chang) as Seung-Dae; 오달수 (Oh Dal-Soo) as Young-Doo; 황우슬혜 (Hwang Wooseul-Hye) as Young Lady;

CREW Director 박찬욱 (Park Chan-Wook) Executive Producer 안수현 (Ahn Su-Hyeon) | Screenplay 박찬욱 (Park Chan-Wook) 정서경 (Jung Seo-Gyeong) | Director of Photography 정정훈 (Jung Jung-Hoon) Lighting 박현원 (Park Hyun-Won) Editor 김재범 (Kim Jae-Beom) 김상범 (Kim Sang-Beom) Music 조영욱 (Jo Young-Wook) Art Direction 류성희 (Ryu Seong-Hee) Costumes 조상경 (Jo Sang-Gyeong) Action Choreography 권승구 (Kwon Seung-Gu) | Assistant Director 석민우 (Seok Min-Woo)
Based Upon Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin

BOX OFFICE
KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 15,051,788,827 Won
TOTAL ADMISSIONS: 2,237,271
BUDGET: 6,800,000,000 Won

Photo ⓒ Moho Film, CJ Entertainment

SYNOPSIS

Beloved and devoted priest from a small town volunteers for a medical experiment which fails and turns him into a vampire. Physical and psychological changes lead to his affair with a wife of his childhood friend who is repressed and tired of her mundane life. The one-time priest falls deeper in despair and depravity. As things turn for worse, he struggles to maintain what’s left of his humanity. [KoBiz]

REVIEW

What if getting what you want was the actual cause of your own damnation?

And there is no need to go into the philosophical (at least right away), but fact is that the last six years of Park Chan-Wook's career have been defined by what one could easily call widespread adulation. When he shocked critics with his masterful 복수는 나의 것 (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance) in 2002, the public reacted in a rather lukewarm way, and we're still talking about the glory days of Chungmuro's renaissance, when even riskier projects could make it big. Might simply have been a result of expectations, the idea that someone who directed 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area) wouldn't make such a sudden u-turn - not that themes and artistry were that different, when you dig deep into the two films, but on the surface it certainly wasn't the crowd pleaser most people expected. By the time 올드보이 (Oldboy) hit theaters and became the spark which ignited the "real" start of Park's career, the cult critic-turned-director was already heralded as a new master of Asian cinema (label which he'd been deserving since 2000, but I digress), from local critics to the earnest championing of one Quentin Tarantino. This is where the dilemma starts.

Now, forget the films. Which installment of the trilogy is better doesn't really matter that much, in retrospect, as they were three deliciously rich chapters of a great saga, offering different cinematic thrills but always coming together at the end with an unified view, a thematic consciousness which pervaded those thrilling, rewarding three years like a strong aroma from vintage coffee. But that kind of attention both at home and abroad, and the increasingly rare occurrence of seeing someone convince both public and critics while at the same time transcending frontiers was not only unique, but also a little puzzling, considering how cerebral and inventive his works are. Why all that attention and acclaim becomes an often infuriating dilemma is exactly because that adulation is as fickle and fleeting as it is invigorating and overwhelming. Some brave visionaries face it without qualms and just go on, continuing along the path they walked on from day one with even more confidence (think Bong Joon-Ho); some sort of complacently milk the cow who brought them gold, offering an increasingly vapid and barren bastardization of what made them different, to gain further acceptance with the least effort (Kim Ki-Duk is the best, or worst, example). Others, like Park Chan-Wook, actually move in rather unexpected directions.

I readily admit my intense annoyance with Park's first post-trilogy work 싸이보그지만 괜찮아 (I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK) might have had a lot more to do with my aversion to the Korean cult of "multitainers," jack of all trades-master of none types whose inarguable hard work and dedication still fail to justify how their conspicuously damaging hold on Korean entertainment has bastardized three industries in one go (and I'm not necessarily singling out Rain). Had Park cast a bonafide thespian in the leading role, maybe I would have had more time to notice the changes he was going through, transformations which might be a result of his rise to stardom between 2003 and 2005, or again might have been planned from the very start. What this change really entails is a simple notion: the trilogy of violence brought Park a lot of acclaim, the respect of many illustrious peers, and significant clout in the world film industry, but he reacted by directing increasingly personal works, with all the consequences you can imagine.

Admittedly, Park had already started dividing audiences with 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance) - when you really think about it, only Joint Security Area and Oldboy achieved that double whammy of pleasing critics and public - but his two following works have been met with polarized reactions the likes of which only people like Lee Myung-Se were used to. When it was announced he would try to tame the vampire film beast in his own way, many expected 박쥐 (Thirst) to become a fanboy's dream come true, but the reaction was not surprisingly of two distinct colors, black and white. Of course that's a gross generalization, but if you take a look at the diatribe on movie portals like Naver and Daum, where purveyors of 10s and 0s throw them fighting words at each other with the verve of two warring states, then you can see how much the Korean mainstream's perception of this madly talented director has changed since the days of raw octopus diners and dentistry done the old school way. Granted, the fact a film of this kind still manages to sell over two million tickets still proves how strong a box office impact top directors have in Chungmuro, and who knows, his remake of Costa-Gavras' The Ax might catapult him back to the days when those feisty conflicts between 10s and 0s would often settle into a solomonic 8. But if there is one thing Thirst does, it is putting his past work and essentially his entire career in a different light. What is happening is that Park is increasingly abandoning genre, abandoning easy pitfalls of fanboy acceptance like stylish ultra-violence, and settling into a much longer lasting and fascinating realm: that of pure art.

Now, I realize how sanctimonious and convenient that might sound: defending something with that moniker suddenly puts you on a pedestal from which it is hard to come down. You can easily justify flaws as the "artistic imperfections" which create that personal and unique approach to the form you'd require from an artist. But sometimes filmmaking can also become art, something whose lyricism, aesthetic and thematic beauty far surpass the paltry warts which sparsely populate a few distinct frames. It's for this reason that Thirst evoked similar reactions to my first viewing of Lee Myung-Se's insanely organic 형사 Duelist - it's as if the flaws were part of the game, enough to make them endearing chapters of your cinematic journey. Take the subpar CG work, for instance. Had those scenes of Song Kang-Ho jumping from roof to roof been given a little more realism and pizzazz, they would have likely erased the thought from your mind that what Sang-Hyun is experiencing is perfectly natural. I'm not saying the awkward animation was intended (although knowing Park, the possibility wouldn't be completely out of the question), but it is indeed anchored to the film's themes in strangely charming ways.

Another huge bone of contention will be the comedy, which is really not much different from Park's past works, but is all the more evident here because of the film's atmosphere. Even something as gritty as Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance was filled with dark humor, moments which often came out of nowhere, dissonant stanzas enriching the main tune in ways that subtitles often could not convey - again, I'm not falling into another predictable defensive technique, the "this film is not as universal as you think" mantra. The bits of comedy in Thirst work magnificently exactly because they often come out of nowhere, taking advantage of Song Kang-Ho's divine comic timing, and often only banking on simple intonations (that "낮에는 좀/But during the day..." is the perfect example). It's like a song by EoEoBu Project: at first you think it's only unintelligible murmurs, cacophony which can only distract you, but after a while this syncopated absurdity sort of gains a strangely endearing charm of its own. More so than in any other Park Chan-Wook film, this grisly and ruthless approach to comedy is often one of the most alluring aspects of the film.

But then again, other peculiar aspects of this film's reception always take center stage. Take, for instance, the mediatic hoopla over Song Kang-Ho's privates showing up on the big screen, not exactly marking a first (Lee Sang-Hyun and Jang Sun-Woo might have something to say about that), but becoming an important milestone which could end a Draconian vestige of the censorship era - if it's worth anything, the recent indie release 저녁의 게임 (Today and the Other Days) featured full frontal nudity from both male and female leads. What's peculiar is how the Korean entertainment press reacted to all this, with the predictable subtlety of a horny teenager. Song Kang-Ho's jewels were on every headline (along with Kim Ok-Bin's daring performance), but how many of those so called journalists had the courtesy of going past that simple detail and look at the big picture? We're dealing with a revered priest-turned-vampire who is "raping" a young disciple, someone who happens to still have her pants on, and when he comes out and the disapproving lights of the crowd put the spotlight on him, he doesn't even have an erection. Wouldn't, like, some cerebral fluids create a chemical reaction up there, suggesting that there might be more to this scene than a simple fornication - like, for instance, the most effective way for someone to awaken people to the dangers of blind faith?

Thirst is filled with similar imagery, always going past simple shocks and "extreme cinema"-friendly fare which would titillate many a western distributor's wildest appetites, and that might very well be one of the reasons why it divided audiences. But, as always, Park's creative insanity is amongst the most controlled bursts of energy in all of Chungmuro's microcosm. Despite copious amounts of blood spilled and lots of sex, nothing really pushes the envelope in that sense - this is no Antichrist, where all of Von Trier's dubiously alluring sanctimony is further cheapened by his quasi-grindhouse sensibilities, or a Gaspar Noé type of experience. When you see someone with superpowers resigning himself to sniffing his belle's armpits because of his heightened sense of smell, what you end up focusing on is how that scene, that moment connects with the overall theme of the film, it's no highlight-reel material you can populate a fancy trailer with. Whenever Thirst returns to such moments, that is the underlying feeling: when Sang-Hyun's blood spurts out of the flute holes which had been playing Bach's enchanting melodies just moments earlier, those pints of red liquid become secondary. And the same goes for any sex scene, much more intent on driving a certain message than seducing the viewer.

This might indeed be what Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin did to Park and this film in thematic terms, more than simply giving Thirst a narrative blueprint: instead of focusing on judgment and morality (which many films of the genre do), Thirst mostly deals with quintessential and barebones temperament, becoming a sort of naturalist vampire film. The dilemmas Sang-Hyun faces are very matter of fact, almost animal-like - and there's a perfect line by Tae-Joo exemplifying all this, when she asks him what really is the difference between a fox slaughtering a chicken to satiate its appetite, and a vampire killing his victims and sucking their blood to survive. Look at both the sexual relationship and the approach to blood-sucking Sang-Hyun has with his victims, and what you'll sense is a sort of higher animal falling into old traps, thorn in between his animal instincts and the temperament of evil they evoke, which inexorably ends up rendering any human guilt he's feeling fruitless. It's like a cross between Thérèse Raquin's human brutes and La Bête Humaine's primal sexuality, all pointing to the same quasi-scientific approach to such issues. The moral dilemmas Sang-Hyun goes through are not necessarily inherent with this particular religion Park chose, they just fit the bill more effectively, and open such thematics to a much larger audience. But the dilemma is quintessentially human before it is religious: can desire be vanquished, and can you escape from the clouds that opening the Pandora's box known as pleasure will bring you?

It's evident that this refusal to follow decade-old conventions of the genre might confuse a lot of viewers: with the exception of the three conditions which define the essence of vampires (sucking blood, the superpowers satisfying that "thirst" can bring you, and the damnation that the light can herald), nothing else really resembles the old vampire canon you're used to: there are no fangs, no garlic thrown at him (it's a "Korean" vampire. How the hell is he going to survive there without garlic?), no intense phobia at the first sight of a cross, and none of the romanticism which pervades the usual vampire film. The human beasts of Thirst actually have to solve problems in quite a pragmatic way - like the idea that sucking some victim's blood and then throwing the body away is a sort of negligence against humanity, and cutting their feet to let all the blood flow down and collect at the bottom might be indeed much more efficient than finding a new victim every night. Their instincts guide their every decision, with the few remaining shreds of human guilt trying to justify those actions (like Sang-Hyun's idea that his sucking the blood of victims who wish to commit suicide sort of excuses him from the moral dilemma of killing people to survive).

It's really a basic game of cause and effect: priest gets infected by mysterious virus because of his "thirst" for bringing an end to his inutility as a spiritual guardian, virtually committing suicide to try to save people and finally make a mark; the virus does bring him back to life, but also creates problematic side effects, which only blood can cure; drinking blood completely changes his life, but slowly peels away everything he considered sacred, making all the benefits of this new life mean increasingly less and less, and eventually leading him to damnation (or, if seen from another angle, salvation). In a way, Thirst treats religion just like the sole excellent entry of 2009 in the horror canon, 불신지옥 (Possessed), did: at the center of the film's message is not really religion per se, but the effect it has on society, particularly in Korea, and as focused on individual and animal-like whims as it is, the film never fails to highlight how group think influences every layer of Korean society - from the martyr priest of the beginning to the controversial messiah he becomes upon his return from Africa. And it goes even further than Possessed in showing the ambiguous effect religion can have on people, with Park In-Hwan's vanquished elder priest becoming the perfect example.

From its quirky, exotic charms (people playing mahjong and drinking vodka in a clothing store straight out of a Showa-era period drama?) to the fabulous mixture of classical music and vintage trot (Lee Nan-Young and Nam In-Soo, mostly), from the expertly controlled cinematography (Park is a notorious "storyboard Nazi," leaving very little on the cutting room floor, since he plans ahead every single shot) to the exceptional art direction, Thirst is just as technically accomplished as anything Park has ever dealt with, but once again it's the cast which makes the biggest impression. I suppose Song's restrained performance - similar to how he approached 밀양 (Secret Sunshine) - might push the spotlight towards his much younger colleague, but he's - once again, and not surprisingly - exceptional, mixing the matter of fact aura of his role in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance with touches of much lighter characters, making Sang-Hyun one of his most unique performances. But if Kim Ok-Bin (her management will pardon me, but King Sejong rightfully omitted the "v" in the Korean alphabet, since it's a sound that never existed on those shores) gets all the attention, I wouldn't be all that surprised.

Debuting in Chungmuro along with another major talent (Seo Ji-Hye) in the 2004 horror film 목소리 (Voice), Kim spent the following five years making rather puzzling choices which rarely took advantage of her above-average screen presence - particularly Lee Jae-Yong's petulant misfire, 다세포소녀 (Dasepo Naughty Girls) - but already by last year's curious period black comedy 1724 기방난동사건 (The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan) she started showing signs of maturity. This is clearly her most impressive performance to date, but the brave and daring sex scenes she shot have very little to do with it - although most actresses of her age and popularity wouldn't touch material like this with a ten foot pole, lest CF contractors might start grumbling that they lost their pure image. When you're in a scene with Kim Hae-Sook, Song Young-Chang, Song Kang-Ho, Oh Dal-Soo and Shin Ha-Gyun and you hang with them without feeling like a fish out of water, that means you've got talent, and lots of it. Kim is bursting with playful energy, as gloriously sexy as she can be cute, both femme fatale and scaredy cat all in the same, incredibly organic mix.

And we go back to point one: if Thirst is pure cinematic art, in much similar ways as Duelist was, will this rather mixed reaction it fomented slowly transform into acceptance, once all the misleading clouds that expectations can generate abandon it over time? I don't know, it might indeed happen. If it's worth anything, it did move me to go back and plan a second viewing of I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK, exactly because my reaction then might be what many people are feeling now about this film. All I'll say is that it brings Park back into top form, if "top form" is something that doesn't involve catering to the extreme cinema/Tarantino cheerleader kind of crowd and/or making festival-friendly fare which challenges you very little. But also that it's one of the most unique - equally visceral as it is cerebral - experiences you can have watching a film in 2009. It brings back a very powerful and demanding feeling, just like its title suggests....

- Originally Published on Twitch, 2009/11/09

ACTING GRADES

96 송강호 (Song Kang-Ho)
87 김옥빈 (Kim Ok-Bin)
80 김해숙 (Kim Hae-Sook)
79 박인환 (Park In-Hwan)
78 신하균 (Shin Ha-Gyun)
75 송영창 (Song Young-Chang)
72 오달수 (Oh Dal-Soo)
66 황우슬혜 (Hwang Wooseul-Hye)

~ Last Update: 2015/06/04