Phil on Film Index

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Review - Thirst (Bakjwi)

During the current wave of cinematic fascination with vampires, the bloodsuckers have been appearing in a variety of forms. A hit adaptation of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight (soon to receive a sequel) has made vampirism appealing for teenage girls; Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In has earned critical adulation and will soon be remade for in America; while Alan Ball's TV series True Blood has brought the creatures into our homes. Even that wide array of offerings couldn't prepare us for Park Chan-wook's Thirst, however. Park's take on the vampire film is typically distinctive, marked by his boundless stylistic verve and gallows humour, and he is determined to reject or toy with many accepted vampiric clichés. His characters have reflections in mirrors, they don't sprout fangs, and the vampire's aversion to crucifixes is dealt with head-on, by making the lead character a catholic priest.

The priest is Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), and his problems arise after he suffers a crisis of faith and makes the drastic decision to submit his body to medical science. The experiments he undergoes prove to be disastrous, and after breaking out in horrendous boils and vomiting torrents of blood, he dies on a gurney, before a transfusion of infected blood brings him back from the dead. It's an inexplicable plot development, and that's not the only question raised by this expository opening, which is handled by Park in a rushed and vague manner. In fact, the film only settles into some kind of consistent rhythm when Sang-hyeon starts to come to terms with his new life as a vampire. As a moral man, the priest refuses to kill in order to feed his thirst, and he compromises in amusing ways, sucking small doses of blood from a comatose patient's drip while doing his rounds at the hospital. But bloodlust isn't the only new urge Sang-hyeon has to try and control, as his sexual lust for the mousy, downtrodden Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin) suddenly comes to the boil, sparking a passionate and ultimately destructive relationship.

Park's story is loosely based on Émile Zola's great novel Thérèse Raquin, with Tae-joo suffering in an unhappy marriage to a sickly husband (Shin Ha-kyun), and living above the shop run by his domineering mother (Kim Hae-sook). Tae-joo spends her nights running barefoot in the streets as fast as she can, in incidents she passes of as sleepwalking to her husband and mother-in-law, but she has nowhere to run to, until Sang-hyeon offers her an unlikely escape route. Their relationship is the lifeblood of Thirst, not least because Park has found in Kim an actress capable of remarkable emotional range, convincingly transforming herself from a meek, withdrawn housewife into a blood-crazed monster with stunning rawness and conviction. Song Kang-ho's performance as Sang-hyeon is a solid one, which warms up after a dour start, but Kim is a sensational find, and I couldn't take my eyes off her.

There's enough interesting chemistry between Song and Kim to give this occasionally maddening picture some emotional weight, and the use of Thérèse Raquin as the basis for Thirst's narrative was a wise one, with some of the best sequences (notably a night-time murder, and the lingering guilt) adhering closely to key scenes from the book. The director doesn't always stick to this narrative, though, and the various disparate plot points and digressions he grafts onto his central thread leave the film seeming bloated and unfocused. Too often, an exhilarating sequence will be followed by an aimless one, which drags the whole picture down. At times, it's easy to believe that Park isn't entirely sure where the story is taking him, although he does manage to pull off an extended climactic sequence that is clever, funny and oddly poignant.

Essentially, though, Thirst is another bravura demonstration of the director's undeniable virtuosity and innovation as a visual stylist, and it will be up to the viewer to decide whether that compensates for the problems with pacing and story. The film is stunningly designed, with Park's regular cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung delivering transfixingly gorgeous images that match his superb work on Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and the sound design is just as impressive. Sang-hyeon's evolution into a vampire results in heightened sensory perception – picking up minute sounds as if they were taking place right next to his ear – but the most vivid noise in the film is the sound of blood being slurped from a body, which sent a shiver down my spine. Technically, Park is a master of his craft, but there's the constant, nagging sense that the aesthetics of his picture continue to take precedence over the basics of storytelling coherence. When Tae-joo insists that Sang-hyeon paint the walls, floor and ceiling of their apartment white, she claims it's because she wants to create the illusion of daylight, but we all know it's simply because Park wants the visual shock of dark red splashing against pure white. There's nothing necessarily wrong with a filmmaker favouring style over substance, of course, but when a filmmaker is in possession of the gifts that Park has, it's a shame the style frequently outpaces the substance by such a margin.