Monday, January 25, 2010

Thirst (2009, Chan Wook Park)

Chan Wook Park's vengeance trilogy has been a cult success here in the States for some years. The second film, Oldboy can be found on a number of decade best lists, and was in many ways responsible for the success of the rest of the series. I wrote a review of Oldboy a few months ago, that you can find here.

Thirst was released in 2009, on a limited basis here in the States, to universal praise in the critical and the genre, fanboy community. Unfortunately, as a Richmonder, it didn't come to a local theater, and I didn't make the trek to D.C. in time to see it.

The DVD was released last week, and I promptly grabbed a copy. I'm happy I did.

The simple and easy way to tell you anything about this is to say that if you liked Oldboy, you're going to like Thirst.

There's more to it than that though, because this is in no way just redoing the same thing over again. If you liked the literate, but still vulgar, uncanny, strange, bizarre and somewhat unsettling nature and tone of the Vengeance Trilogy, this is for you. It's all of those things with a story very different from those film, and a very different tone. The last decade produced two of the best vampire films in history, and this is one of them.

The story surrounds a priest who volunteers for a medical experiment attempting to find a vaccine for a fatal virus. In the experiment he contracts the virus/disease, and during the treatment for that, has to get a transfusion, and from that, contracts vampirism. That's the quick to the point synopsis, and what you already know about the film if you've read or heard anything at all.

Before we get there in the story though, you get the idea that this priest, became a priest because he wanted to help people, but being a priest doesn't really present him the opportunity to help in the way he would like. You get the idea that he's questioning his choices, that he's not really very happy about the way his life is going. You find he's an orphan, and it's more or less inferred that he followed in the footsteps of the priest who ran the orphanage.

I'm not going to tell you too much about where it goes, except that it eventually involves a woman, and that's when it gets both most strange and also most interesting. The interesting thing about this film, and why I think it's right behind Let The Right One In, is that the two films involve vampirism, but they focus mainly on the relationships of the characters as opposed to the usual genre tropes of the vampire film. Let's also make sure we give both of these films every bit of credit we can for basically being antithetical to Twilight. Thirst is a well written story about the way our idealizations effect our actual lives, and it has the good sense not to take itself too seriously. As weird and sometimes disturbing or unsettling as some of it is, there is a pretty strong vein of dark humor running through the whole film. Interestingly enough, without it, this whole thing would have come across as being silly, specifically because of how seriously it would have taken itself. It doesn't end up portraying being a vampire as something very good. It definitely comes across as a horrible, messy, disgusting business. Though, not in the same way as something like, 30 Days Of Night, which reveled in the sadism of it's vampires.

What I can tell you is that the film ends up really being about power in relationships, desires not indulged (but not necessarily in the kind of carnal desire, animal desire kind of way you're used to in vampire films), and the question of how much any of that really makes you what you are.

Chan Wook Park is a master. For someone like myself who is a fan of genre films, it's really an incredible and satisfying thing to see a film maker of Park's abilities making them. Here, in the U.S., genre isn't really taken very seriously in the sense of film as an art. Commercially, it's exploited, but not taken seriously, in the way petticoat period films are. To have someone with this level of talent and intelligence working making genre films, and in many ways breaking genre's wide open.

I can recommend this one for the open minded film goer. If you like your films to follow the usual plot points, with few surprises and fewer unusual character decisions or very black and white in the sense of right and wrong, this is not for you. If, however, you're grown up enough to enjoy something a little more complex, extremely well made and in itself intelligent enough not to insult your intelligence, this is for you.

Potential Spoilers follow. 

I couldn't really just leave this review saying so little about the film as I did above. The problem was, I couldn't say much more without giving away some of the story, the revelation of which are part of what I think make it such a good film.

One of the most surprising aspects of the film was the frank nature of the sexuality. It was pretty straightforward, and didn't really veer off into the kind of fantasy aspect you're used to seeing in sex scenes in film. Usually in film (with the exception of porn), there's the heavily stylized, overly directed attempts at making sex seem really romantic to look at or even in films dealing more directly with something like straightforward sexual desire, plain old lust, it's still set up and shot in a way which gives it a particularly unnatural kind of look. I understand that in terms of telling those stories, that is part of what works and part of what makes film different than other mediums. A director uses lighting, and cinematography as part of getting across an idea, giving a shot or story atmosphere and so on. I'm not necessarily knocking all of that in terms of the way film has so often portrayed sex, but I am saying this is something we see much, much less often. There's a sense of the sex itself not being placed on a moral scale, as either good and attractive or bad and repulsive. It's presented in a pretty matter of fact nature, leaving everything you think or feel about it a result of what you think or feel about the characters and how they came to be there, more than the act itself. That's pretty awesome as far as I'm concerned.

It also struck me that Park seems to have an affinity for portraying characters in sexual situations which are somewhat unusual and meant to make the audience somewhat uncomfortable. I honestly thinks this is not only brilliant, as it keeps things from veering into the kind of territory where someone like me is sitting there watching, and saying, "Not this again. I'm really tired of this." It becomes much more along the lines of "What the hell is this?" Thirst isn't quite as disturbing as Oldboy in that way either. I should probably tell you that, because the final reveal in Oldboy, is deeply disturbing.

In it's own strange way, this is something which adds to not only the reality of the film, but also to the degree you're interested in and care about the characters. It's as if we've gotten so used to the cookie cutter situations and characters in film, and exactly how unreal they all are, when we're presented with people who's foibles and unusual attributes aren't run of the mill movie stock, it's easier to be invested in the characters and their world. Those foibles and unusual attributes and appetites are much more real and human, especially when presented in a way which is at least somewhat sympathetic. If you'll notice, I've avoided the word perversion, and I've done so because nothing in this film is necessarily in the way of what I would think of as perversion. It's left of center somewhat, but as I said, nowhere near as in your face, shake your world taboo as Oldboy, and for this story it doesn't have to be.

It also deals with the power struggles which are all too often a part of relationships, and it does so magnificently and in an adult way, while using the metaphors of vampirism to do it. It also addresses the kind of savior/martyr ideas and attitudes that can be at work in many relationships. There are a number of different characters in the film who have been extremely helpful, and loving to other characters, while at the same time being stifling and over bearing. The characters being stifled though, in at least two of those cases, are very much following their own agendas. It's something I once heard referred to as the tyranny of the pitiful. Every character in the film is someone you're somewhat sympathetic towards though. Even in those moments where a character is doing something you recognize as just plain wrong, you can also recognize how you might do the same in their shoes. Unless you're the kind of perfectly upstanding, never done anything wrong in your life type (which really means you're full of shit and just don't like to look your own humanity in the face), this film is complex enough to be interested, but not so complex as to be a chore to watch and follow

Another thing interesting about Thirst is the degree to which it is shot through with illness, disease and sickness. Because it is so much about the relationships in it's story, I'm coming away thinking that continuing theme of illness and sickness is really about the way they relate to each other, and that each of them under goes a transformation of some kind along the way, either like resurrection (vampirism) or decay (disease, illness, decay), and those transformations, those changes, directly effect the way their relationships continue. All of that very much ties in with the iconography of having a main character who is a priest, and then turning him into a vampire.

All in all, great film making. Pick it up and give it a chance.

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