Forget Twilight and Check Out This South Korean Vampire Tale
Thursday, August 20, 2009
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews Thirst and speaks with its director Park Chan-Wook
Forget about "Twilight" and "True Blood," with their pasty vampires mooning over silly human girls. Instead go see "Thirst" (opening August 21 at Landmark's Ken Cinema), a truly twisted tale of sin, redemption, and vampires from South Korea.
In “Thirst,” a noble priest named Sang Hyeon (Song Kang-Ho) volunteers for a medical experiment that could save thousands of lives. But something goes wrong and Sang gets infected blood and dies… then he comes back to life as a vampire. He doesn't immediately realize that he's a vampire. He doesn't grow fangs but he's definitely different. Boils cover his body and his skin starts to peel. He thinks he's going to die again but then he drinks some blood and he's fine again. Suddenly this man of the cloth who wanted nothing more than to help people is craving human blood. He initially manages to avoid killing anyone, choosing instead to steal blood from the hospital or from a comatose patient getting a transfusion.
At the Comic-Con panel last month for "Thirst," South Korean director Park Chan-Wook stated with some glee that "In your average vampire film a priest would play the role of a vampire hunter that would be helping the victims and helping drive out these creatures but in my film the priest becomes the vampire."
The disease mutates in Sang’s veins and defies easy diagnosis. Similarly, the film keeps changing so that the audience is constantly left guessing where it’s going to go next. That’s exactly the kind of film Park Chan-Wook said he wanted to make, “the one that you cannot pin down, the one that you cannot easily define or one that doesn’t necessarily give satisfaction to the audience."
Park takes delight in defying audience expectations. At Comic-Con, Park explained through a translator what attracted him to vampires: “I always thought vampires were poor creatures, they can only drink blood, they can only go about their business at night, and they have a very limited menu. There are all these restrictions for them to live by.”
So the priest must juggle his new set of restrictions with his old ones from the church. That’s where the film gets interesting.
“As a priest he would have to contemplate on mystery of Christ's blood,” said Park, “which is spilled for the redemption of the mankind and then he becomes a vampire now he is actually drinking blood for his own survival rather than the good of mankind.”
So how does a vampire with a conscience lead his life? “Thirst” uses a vampire virus as the catalyst to set a complex tale of sin and redemption in motion. The unlikely source Park cites as the basis for his film is Emile Zola's 19th century novel “Thérèse Raquin.” You won't find any vampires in Zola’s work, which exemplified literary naturalism in its story of a woman trapped in a bad marriage. The all too human title character has an affair, and she and her lover engineer the death of her husband. That triangular relationship – with its betrayals, adultery, and murder – smacks of classic film noir. And Park plays out the basic plot of Zola’s work as if it were a film noir along the lines of “Double Indemnity.” When I spoke with Park the day after his panel, he confessed to an affection for noir but didn’t want to limit his film to one genre.
"Apart from film noir, fundamentally this film has romance at its core as well,” said Park, “And despite being a horror or romance film it has a lot of comic scenes as well. So in order to actually describe this film you may have to string together a lot of genres."
Park’s genre bending takes the story from the horrors of vampirism to a torrid affair between Sang and Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin), a young woman trapped in suffocating marriage (she’s the Thérèse Raquin of this bloodsucking tale). When Tae-joo discovers Sang’s a vampire, she reacts with joy rather than horror. She thrills at jumping off a building with him and delights in his strength, a strength she hopes he’ll use to dispose of her bothersome husband. But as with "Thérèse Raquin," the lovers of "Thirst" are haunted by their crime. But in the hands of Park Chan-Wook (the man who brought us “Oldboy,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “I’m a Cyborg and I’m Okay”) the dead hubby haunts the lovers in an unexpected and oddly funny manner. This is film noir as black comedy, and horror as twisted romance. Vampirism becomes a moot point as the interdependent relationship between the two leads becomes the focus of our attention. And Park refuses to draw his characters in simple strokes.
“If you think these characters are complex,” said Park, “this is probably because in reality this is human nature, even taking people who are close to us, people who we think we know very well, if we put them in an extreme situation we might be surprised at what they might do. Every human being has this potential within themselves and these can manifest themselves in a very violent way if they are pushed into a corner.”
With “Thirst” (rated R for graphic bloody violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content, nudity and language, and in Korean with English subtitles). Park pushes both audiences and his characters into a corner to see how they react. The results are once again fascinating. “Thirst” is not as tightly made as such earlier works as “Oldboy,” but it delivers such an inventive, provocative, and darkly funny spin on the vampire formula that it demands attention.
Companion viewing: “Martin,” “Oldboy,” “I’m a Cyborg and I’m Okay,” "Let the Right One In," "Near Dark"
And here's a video of my interview with Park along with clips from the film.
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