Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2009

Sins of the flesh

Chan-wook Park sinks his fangs into Christian guilt and penance in wry vampire fable 'Thirst'

Focus Features
Director: Chan-wook Park
Screenplay: Chan-wook Park and Seo-Gyeong Jeong
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ok-vin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, In-hwan Park, Ha-kyun Shin and Dal-su Oh
Rated R / 2 hours, 13 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Of all the symbols in Christian theology - and often beyond - the most potent is blood. It is sacred. It is an oath, a sacrifice, a bond. A priest would know this best of all. And so, when that priest finds himself unwittingly transformed into a bloodthirsty vampire, how is his soul to react?

Only Chan-wook Park would turn a brutally violent vampire tale into a gleefully macabre, tongue-in-cheek bastardization of Christian symbolism. Thirst is his kind of tragicomic fable - the kind in which characters are truly put through the moral ringer.

Consider poor Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song). All he ever wanted was to help people. If that meant volunteering to infect himself with a terrible virus in order to help find a cure, so be it. Little did he know the experiment would turn him into a vampire - his body healing itself with every drop of blood he consumes.

This is Sang-hyun's agonizing trial, a testing ground for his own personal threshold for suffering. But of course, that suffering is two-pronged - precious bodily fluids of all kinds are out of bounds. As a priest, he has already pledged a life of celibacy. Now he has to resist the temptation to drink blood as well, depriving himself of the pseudo-sexual sensation it provides?

Complicating matters is a young woman he meets at the hospital at which he volunteers - Tae-ju (Ok-vin Kim), a frustrated and put-upon girl with a devilish curiosity for the new priest. The attraction is mutual, of course - but he's not just after . . .well, you know, that. When you're a vampire, you have a secondary means of penetration. (And I'm not even arguing which is which.)

The film is driven by this uneasy coupling, which deliberately borders on farcical as Park skirts all the taboos the characters have between them. There's a great scene early on when the two are deep in the throws of guilty passion - the first such moment of Sang-hyun's life, it seems. And then they're cruelly interrupted, forced to stop halfway through. The film continually prolongs the space between suffering and ecstasy - especially since Sang-hyun continues to try to be a moral man. Tae-ju makes those attempts rather difficult.

And you can only guess what her reaction is when she finds out what he is.

Park has an obscene amount of rather obscene fun with his playful analogies about lust, sexual repression and, yes, even sacrament. You've heard the term, "Eat of my flesh, drink of my blood"? Well, this film makes that as literal as you could possibly make it. And, when necessary, as disgusting.

And it's not just the good priest's own insatiable appetites. When others discover his gift, they want to eat of his flesh, and drink of his blood - doing so, as it turns out, will give them his same powers. The irony is certainly not lost on Sang-hyun - or us - that he originally set out to heal people and now has to withhold that gift.

Thirst is a thrillingly violent romantic fantasy glorified by Park's customarily strong feel for atmosphere and clever experiments with visual language.

Pay close attention when Sang-hyun begins playing the flute in one early scene. Or consider the way Park shows us Tae-ju's reaction to seeing something horrific for the first time - by keeping the camera on her in a close-up. We know what she's just seen simply by looking at her face; no need for Park to let us see it for ourselves. And as always in his films, there are blood-drenched moments of absolute beauty.

Thirst doesn't waste its efforts on cheap thrills, either. There's such a delightful wit to Park's films that sometimes it's easy to look the other way when he can't quite seem to contain himself. I'd take a filmmaker with this much energy and visual panache over a million more disciplined directors any day. His masterwork, 2003's Oldboy - the second entry in his so-called "Vengeance Trilogy" - was flooded with morbid humor that wonderfully elevated its Greek tragedy-like narrative.

With Thirst, he uses his vampire/human love story as a shoehorn into comically illuminating explorations of guilt, sin and penance - all of which become of increasingly grave importance to Sang-hyun, since who he is is now akin to mortal sin.

The film has its rocky moments, rushing a bit clumsily into the introduction of the plot and moving awkwardly at times between particular segments. However, it hits its greatest notes over the final 45 minutes - just after a key development with one character. This circumstance, which we've been anticipating for some time, marvelously brings to the forefront the moral torments that have been lurking the whole time. It is during Thirst's extended final act that we see Park at his darkest, his funniest and his most entertaining.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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