Friday, January 29, 2010

Thirst – review

dvdDirector: Chan-wook Park

Release date: 2009

Contains spoilers

I have waited with baited breath to see Thirst, or Bakjwi. Its limited UK theatrical run came nowhere near me but, at long last, the UK DVD is available and my thanks to Ian for having the vampire Father Christmas deliver said disc. So did the film disappoint? Read on…

We have seen Park’s work before, in passing at least, with his segment of Three… Extremes, Cut, beginning on the set of a fictional vampire film Live Evil. Thirst’s international working title was Evil Live. Park is often seen as an auteur and he does have a wonderful visual style.

bad day in the hospitalYet this film, visually impressive, is more than just that – as it is more than just a vampire flick. The film begins by looking at the priest Father Hyeon (Kang-ho Song). He spends his days offering comfort and guidance to the sick in a hospital. As the film begins he listens to a story told by the patient Hyo-Song. He asks Hyeon to play the flute, but by the time the priest returns with his instrument Hyo-Song is in respiratory distress and ends up comatose.

Father Hyeon has also seen a patient, Sarah, die that day and goes to his superior – the blind and wheel chair bound Father Noh (In-hwan Park) – and asks whether he can go to the clinic. The Vatican, he is told, frowns on the clinic but, eventually, Father Hyeon is on a plane to Africa. In the clinic they search for a cure to the Emmanuel Virus, a virus that seems to effect Asian and Caucasian males. It causes plague like blisters to cover the body and eventually gets into the lungs, causing the excessive bleeding and death. Hyeon is a volunteer in an experiment to find a potential vaccine.

dying of Emmanuel VirusHe becomes ill with the disease – though he writes home to his patients as though he is on vacation – and eventually, on a hospital table, he dies despite blood transfusions. Then he comes alive again – a miracle it seems. He is (though he does not know it) vampire – where this comes from, transfusion of blood or the experimental cure is not tackled; it just is. Father Hyeon comes home, the only one of 50 to volunteer who survived (folklore later increases this to 500) and the people look to him to cure their ills – there is talk of the bandaged saint.

Six months later he is at the hospital when a woman, Mrs Ra (Hae-sook Kim), asks him to pray for her son Kang-woo (Ha-Kyun Shin) – he has leukaemia and his wife Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim) is there also. Hyeon does pray for him and it becomes apparent that the family knew Hyeon when he was an orphan. He finds that the family believe he has cured the sickly Kang-woo’s leukaemia as it, apparently, has gone.

Hyeon's senses overloadTae-ju was abandoned with Mrs Ra as an infant and Mrs Ra married her to Kang-woo on adulthood. Due to his sickly nature Kang-woo is spoilt and takes his wife for granted, Mrs Ra abuses her. She runs at night, barefoot through the streets, and blames her excursions on sleepwalking. Hyeon finds himself aroused by Tae-ju and flagellates himself when he gets back to his room. His hearing becomes hyper-sensitive and he collapses.

burning in the sunHe awakens naked, on the floor of his room, as the sun has risen and his back starts to burn. Like the actual source of the vampirism, why it triggers now isn’t explicitly stated but is clearly tied in with the sexuality aspects. In the evening he emerges from a wardrobe – but the Emmanuel Virus has clearly taken a hold of him again. He performs his duties, swaddled in bandages, until he has to pray for a dying woman and gets her blood on his hand. He licks it.

first real feedHe ends up in Hyo-Song’s room drinking blood via a tube from the comatose man. The blood revives him and makes his EV blisters recede into his skin. Later Tae-ju is running through the streets again and he appears before her, she is blurred until he takes his glasses off (his eyesight has repaired). She retreats from him but he catches her and then walks off – we see that, with superhuman speed, he put his shoes on her feet.

Kang-ho Song as Father HyeonFrom then on in the story fairly much follows Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin with Tae-ju taking the role of Thérèse, Kang-woo as Camille and Hyeon as Laurent – the book is credited. For those who know the story, you know where this then leads but for those who don’t let it be sufficient to say that Hyeon and Tae-ju begin an affair and madness and murder follow in its wake, with a blackly comic overtone – and rather funny to, I was laughing out loud at some of the parts of this. However the film is so much more than that.

the Messiah of the virusThe film has elements of horror, black comedy, romantic comedy and drama and the story is much more than Thérèse Raquin. The entire religious aspect is astounding. If we look at the fact that Tae-ju denies Hell because she does not have faith and thus will not go to Hell, that Hyeon leaves the priesthood for her and her embracement of a very Western consumer lifestyle (represented by shoes) then we see that he is almost the Messiah of secular society. As he turns her they become one and the same, aspects of each other perhaps – this is directly referenced. Emmanuel is (biblically) the Messiah foretold, thus the virus has searched out the one who will return from the dead and the film even symbolically shows leviathan rising at the end.

a doubting Thomas momentWhen Hyeon admits his condition to Father Noh, he does so by opening his chest and letting the priest push his fingers in (to the heart), which is reminiscent of doubting Thomas and whilst Hyeon may turn from the priesthood and commit crimes he is still, at heart, a caring man. There is certainly a whole thesis waiting to be interpreted within the film and perhaps more than I can say without spoiling too much.

bite markThe vampirism is one that has a sexual or even a hedonistic nature, Hyeon admits that he wants to taste every sinful pleasure. There is no impact on the vampires through religion or religious icons – a deliberate move on Chan-wook Park’s part given the main character. They also do not have fangs, a bite mark on Tae-ju is a normal human bite. They do have superhuman strength, speed, leaping and resilience (it also appears that they might be able to fly, though it could be leaping in a single bound ala original Superman). A scene with Hyeon and Tae-ju bounding across the rooftops is beautifully balletic.

Ok-bin Kim as Tae-juKang-ho Song is brilliant as Hyeon but special mention must go to the young actress Ok-bin Kim who is magnificent in her role as Tae-ju. If I had a complaint it was perhaps (slightly) in the pacing but one wonders whether that was due to Western sensibility and whether there was truly a problem or not. That brings me to score and I would be remiss if I scored this any less than 9 out of 10. The imdb page is here.


Shagg / dptd said...

I saw it also today and I must agree with You! This movie was very nice to watch! Vampire Priest - damn, it is soooo gooood. :P

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers Shagg/dptd

S. Roit said...

I knew you'd like it.

It's definitely a longer, differently paced film that most western films, but I rather liked that— the ability to really get into the characters, to get to know them.

Also, kudos to you that you know the Zola novel. I was watching this film, thinking, gee...some of this is terribly familiar. (I'd read the book a few months ago.)

Good use of that material with a vampiric twist!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks Sherry, the length might be off putting to some but, as you say, it allows you to really get to know the characters.

I must say I have been impressed with some of the material coming out of Korea recently but this one was something extra special.

S. Roit said...

I've always like what's called "Asia Extreme."

Even their ghosts stories are generally better. They at least understand atmosphere.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

There are some really good films coming out of Asia at the moment - Japan and Korea seem to be at the forefront to my way of thinking.