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Thirst (Bakjwi)


I am thirsty too, but not for Korean blood, thanks.

dir: Chan-wook Park

It’s an odd film. It’s interesting at times, boring at others, mostly enjoyable but also emotionally and stylistically flat some times. I’m sure it was deliberate. Chan-wook Park is an accomplished director, but don’t go expecting this to be too much in line with either Old Boy or Sympathy for Mr Vengeance.

It’s clear to me that he really intended on telling a very different vampire story from the ones popular with the girls and their wine cooler soaked mothers at the multiplex. He also intended on supplying the audience with a fairly leisurely, some might say lazy, broad satire of Catholicism. It seems odd to me that a Korean director would give a damn about Christianity, but then again I have no idea how widespread the Christbotherers are in South Korea, or even if the sky is blue and grass is green over there.

All I know about the peninsula is that the North Koreans have some fiercely choreographed high goose-stepping soldiers, millions of them, all starving for attention, freedom and a handful of rice.

South Korea is where the action is, and where the steady streams of films are coming from. It seems, though it’s not true, that Kang-ho Song is in most of them. He is, at least, even fleetingly in all the ones that I’ve seen thus far, whether good, bad or just plain weird.

Here he plays the main character, a Catholic priest called Sang-hyeon, who is very dedicated to his vocation. So dedicated is he that he decides, for reasons we can’t fathom, to sacrifice himself as a medical guinea pig in Africa, where a dreaded disease caused by the Emmanuel virus kills everyone infected with it. Sang-hyeon volunteers to have the virus injected into him.

I don’t know why he swallowed a virus, but there it is. Instead of dying painfully, Sang-hyeon covers himself in bandages, because of a bunch of pustules, and discovers that, whilst reoccurring, his symptoms disappear when he drinks blood. And sunlight disagrees with him. And he’s super strong, and he doesn’t feel very priestly any more.

Upon returning to Korea, he eventually drifts out of the church, mostly because people venerate him as some kind of super Jesus powered healer. One person who miraculously turns around from the brink of death under his tender ministrations happens to be someone he knew when he was a kid. Thus does Sang-hyeon get involved with Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and his despicable family.

All this takes a very long time to come together, very long time, and then it starts taking these strange turns. Obsessive-sick love kind of madness and guilt induced hallucinations aren’t completely out of place in a flick with vampires in it, vampires in the mutant-science gone wrong sense (since there is nothing mystical or supernatural about Sang-hyeon in this, none of the gothic elements or any sense that there are scores of other cool looking ex-priests out there forming coteries and cabals of their own: just Sang-hyeon and his eventual partner-in-crime).

In fact, when Sang-hyeon starts having sex with Kang-woo’s wife Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), who lives under the perpetual drunken glare of her vile mother-in-law, it’s his desire for more sex that really prompts him to leave the Catholic Church.

His need to have more sex, and Tae-ju’s claims that her weakling husband actually physically torments her, results in even further developments placing Sang-hyeon further and further away from the teachings of Christ, and more in the realm of a murderer driven half-mad by guilt from an Edgar Allan Poe story.

Much of this flick, and I’m not privy to the workings of Chan-wook Park’s demented mind, seems really to come from the idea that Jesus did, apparently, say, drink of my blood and ye shall have life eternal AND that Christian beliefs are a bit nuts.

Of course, he meant that acceptance of The Jesus as yer personal Lord and Salvager, and the mystery of the Eucharist would give a good Christer’s soul eternal life, in heaven, naturally. It all makes perfect sense.

Sang-hyeon is a good, almost messianic priest, who decides that drinking blood to prevent the physical effects of his condition is necessary, but it’s more the needs of the flesh that force him to give up his vocation. Though the blood is a necessity, it’s very much more the sex.

Celibacy, immortality, rough sex with damaged, dull and sadomasochistic women, blood into wine into the stuff of life; all of this is apparently a Korean take on Catholicism taken to its logical (or absurd) extreme. The thing is, I can’t tell if Chan-wook Park is winking as he’s doing this.

And I don’t know if it really matters. The film grinds down to a claustrophobic place when the story gets stuck in the house above a dress shop where Tae-ju and Sang-hyeon fuck and try to get their next blood fix, as she hungers for the hunt but he tries to deny his very nature. As the bodies start to pile-up within the apartment, it leads to a conclusion that perhaps isn’t predictable, but doesn’t really make a lot of sense either.

The growing sexual obsession between the two lovers starts resembling that sick kind of sex madness from stuff like In the Realm of the Senses or Betty Blue, but the comedic use of moments of extreme violence, and the playing around with the vampire myth, and the appearance of a certain ghost make this flick less of a revamping of horror standards and more a throwback to old-school horror.

I generally don’t like these kinds of vampire updates. In fact, some of them I count as amongst the hardest to watch, most painful and flat out terrible vampire flicks of all, even compared to ones like the dumb ones aimed at pony-loving teenage girls. ‘Arty’ vampire flicks like Nadja, The Addiction, Wisdom of Crocodiles or those awful Russian Daywatch/ Nightwatch ones do little but annoy me, ultimately. Whereas the cheap action-y ones are often crap, at least they’re not dull and plodding to sit through. And they’ve usually got more nudity in them.

Thirst held my interest but lost me several times. It’s agonizingly slow in places, and, since I didn’t think much of the girl in the lead as the object/subject of Sang-hyeon’s obsession, many of their scenes together didn’t work for me.

I can appreciate the ending, especially in the sense that Sang-hyeon (in other words, Chan-wook Park) thinks out a scenario of no escape and implements it with all the variations that pop up, in an effort to expiate that guilt so necessary to stories where Catholicism is mentioned. It’s a long, slow march to that end, I’ll tell you what.

It’s well shot, and the framing and composition of scenes, and even many of the ideas and their absurd conclusions are appreciable, it’s just that it’s a dull slog for little return. This flick opened the last Melbourne International Film Festival, and was treated, along with its director, like royalty. It’s hard to know why, except to think that it was highly anticipated because of the goodwill engendered by his earlier, and some might even say better flicks.

Because, solely on its own merits, this flick is pretty minor, notwithstanding the fact that it’s a perversely interesting and boring thought experiment of a film with an appropriate ending but a very long middle. I never thought I’d be so nonplussed with a film from the same guy who made Old Boy, complete with clawhammer dentistry and live octopus eating, but you can’t keep making the same film endlessly, I guess.

Which is a pity. I wonder what he’ll do next? Maybe a film about cooking and werewolves?

6 times the sex scenes are creepier than the death scenes out of 10

“If you look at something for more than four seconds, then other people feel compelled to look at it as well.” – that explains the popularity of Avatar, I guess, Thirst.