Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Thirst: Morality Without Faith
Note: This review contains MILD SPOILERS!
If the films of South Korean director Park Chan-Wook for the past decade haven't convinced you that he is one of the most important filmmakers of our time, I don't know what will. One would be hard-pressed to find any American director with such an ambitious and idiosyncratic filmography. Starting with the almost-conventional by comparison "Joint Security Area" in 2000, which then led to his Vengeance Trilogy of "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", "OldBoy" and "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" and his previous film before now, the somewhat discomforting "romantic comedy" "I'm a Cyborg, But That's Ok", this may be the most impressive run of any director that is now confirmed with his latest film "Thirst".
I admittedly have had little to no use for vampire films, finding the usual plot devices of feeding off someone else's blood, avoidance of crosses and sunlight and stakes through hearts to be repetitious and tiresome. Usually, filmmakers employ vampirism for the most heavy-handed of metaphors, particularly regarding drug addiction, as if they were the first ones to come up with it. So, I find it interesting that during this era of Vampire Hype in films and television, I have seen two great films about vampirism within a year, both of them not produced in this country and, for the most part, will not be seen by as many people as "Twilight".
"Let the Right One In", a Swedish film directed by Tomas Alfredson, was the first, in which the usual plot devices of vampire movies take a back seat to a coming of age story about falling in love for the first time. That movie never once forgets how disturbing the central relationship between Oskar and Eli actually is, but also understands their loneliness and the joy one discovers when finding someone who not only shows interest in who you are but doesn't pass judgment on you because you are different.
There was a also a genuine beauty to the images of that film, most of which takes place in the equivalent of an American housing project at night with snow on the ground at all times. The widescreen images are often employed to show the isolation of its main characters, framing them in sparse urban landscapes. Movies derived from the horror genre have often looked cheap and artless, with directors too afraid of getting through a film without unleashing cheap scares. Even the quiet moments are contrived to build up to something like a cat jumping out of the cupboard. "Let the Right One In" is a quiet movie from beginning to end, so that when those rare moments happen, it actually is a genuine surprise. However, the movie is not about building to those moments, but is more interested in the quiet and contemplative moments.
Park Chan-Wook's "Thirst" tackles the vampire movie from a completely different angle, often the quite moments building up to operatic ones. It sees the vampire movie as a means to explore questions of morality about our true nature after undergoing drastic personal changes in our lives. The story is about a priest named Sang-hyun (played by Song Kang-Ho) who volunteers for an experiment to test a vaccine for a disease that is killing many people. The experiment fails, resulting in his death. However, within seconds of being declared dead, he returns to life due to the vampire blood pumped into his veins in an attempt to save his life.
When word spreads about his miraculous resurrection, Sang-hyun is worshipped by many as a healer and is constantly harassed by others asking him to save their lives or the lives of a loved one. One of these people is a former childhood friend Kang-Woo (played by Shin Ha-kyun), a loutish man who lives with his overbearing mother (played by Kim Hae-sook) and his wife Tae-ju (played by Kim Ok-bin). When Sang-hyun becomes closer to this family, it is clear there is an attraction between himself and Tae-ju. It is also suggested that Tae-ju is often verbally and physically abused by her husband and mother-in-law.
During this time, we find out that Sang-hyun needs blood to survive, often going to the hospital and drinking blood from a person's body through a feeding tube. He often rationalizes that he chooses to not kill people to quench his thirst, though we can see that he still takes from these comatose patients involuntarily. Sang-hyun actually claims one patient would have been willing to share his blood based on his generous spirit demonstrated in a story the patient told him earlier, concerning a cake. Considering that Sang-hyun's doubts about his faith were already sorely tested by the pain and suffering he witnessed before he took part in the experiment, it is somewhat expected to see how he slowly is willing to cross the line to fulfill his desires.
Sang-hyun's attraction to Tae-ju will, of course, lead to greater moral choices from his vows as a man of God to the willingness to kill to get what he wants. During this, Tae-ju is revealed to be someone who is undergoing the same changes as Sang-hyun, but starting from a place with less moral grounding. Both eventually demonstrate how willing people are to toss their morality aside when allowed a certain degree of power and advantage over others.
What I find particularly interesting about this film is how religion plays an important part at first, but is then eventually downplayed as it progresses. About halfway through the film, Sang-hyun abandons his priesthood. At that point, the film becomes more about how one tries to hold onto their morality without relying on the crutch of God. Sang-hyun's more amoral actions throughout the second half of the film are plagued by self-doubt as much as his faith in the beginning. I feel what Park Chan-Wook is getting at is similar to what Charlie narrates at the very beginning of Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets": "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it. "
Sang-hyun's morality was never truly tested until he gets out of the church. The other people we meet and the situations we face every day are what forces us to make choices between right and wrong, although often lying in the grey area in between. It becomes less about a man in the sky watching your every move and possibly punishing you in the afterlife, but more about having to face the people you may have wronged out of sheer selfishness and, more importantly, your own reflection in the mirror.
Sang-hyun's guilt over his actions near the end of the movie never seemed to be out of fear of an angry God or shame for having lost his faith. It ultimately becomes about how much he's willing to live with himself as well as how much he can abet Tae-ju who has no qualms doing harm onto others. Tae-ju is one of those people who goes about life feeling she has been wronged by others without taking responsibility for her own actions and never admitting to herself that she is no better.
"Thirst", like all Park Chan-Wook films beforehand, sticks with me long after it is over. For all the gruesome violence in his films, it is the humanity he shows towards people who commit these acts that truly shocks me. I often ask myself during his films if I was willing to go as far as these characters do when put in an extraordinary position. Even if I'm not willing to kill someone out of vengeance or a need to feed off someone's blood, I can actually understand them. Violence in his films is never unearned or strictly for cheap thrills, as say, someone like Quentin Tarantino would employ it in most of his films. It represents the depths we may be susceptible to lowering ourselves during moments of unchecked rage or a shift in our moral compasses.
One cannot also discuss a Park Chan-Wook film without acknowledging his sense of composition and camera movement. The film was shot by Chung-hoon Chung, who has shot his films since "OldBoy". As an aspiring filmmaker myself, I often find these days I look towards movies made in Asia (Hong Kong and South Korea, in particular) because those filmmakers actually know how to use the 2.35:1 frame not just as mere beauty, but also as a way of expressing the emotions of the film. American filmmakers use the anamorphic aspect ratio to convey a "bigness" or "scope" to their movies and then proceed to cover action through pedestrian angles and television-level coverage.
Park Chan-Wook's movies are never about "scope" for the sake of it. Much of this film actually takes place in small, constricted spaces. But he often can arrange characters in position in the frame or block the action towards a specific camera move that conveys what the characters are feeling. When moral choices in this movie are made, they are never expressed out loud. But, we understand it because we actually see it through a combination of specific composition, lighting, editing and, let's not forget, performance.
Song Kang-Ho gives an understated performance that fully shows how his actions weigh on him. Compare this performance to all the empty moodiness of the performances in "Public Enemies". It has dawned on me how many films I have seen in him by now and still felt during this film that I was watching an actor I had never seen before. Previously, his standout roles for me were the roles in Bong Joon-Ho's films "Memories of Murder" and "The Host" where he played a somewhat incompetent, but well-meaning detective and someone who is a possible simpleton, respectively. "Thirst" contains his best and his most restrained work as an actor.
One cannot also go without mentioning the great performance of Kim Ok-bin as Tae-ju. That Kim Ok-bin is also a model and only 22 years old makes this even more astonishing for the level of depth and sadness there is in this portrayal of someone who takes out the unfairness of life on everyone around her when given the chance. A character like this could have simply descended into a caricature of evil by the end of the film, but the final scene between she and Song Kang-Ho shows a surprising empathy towards them. We do not have to condone the actions, but we have to understand how we could have easily travelled down the same road.
Any time I have discussed movies and the important directors of our generation, I often try as much to interject Park Chan-Wook into the conversation in the hopes of not merely praising him, but getting people to actually go see his movies. Due to the subject matter of his movies and, admittedly, some of the more uglier actions taken by his characters, many do not want to subject themselves to his world. Which is a shame because I think we really need directors like him to counterbalance the often weightless movies of our time.
Unlike many of the top directors of our time who started their careers back in the 90's, Park Chan-Wook is not simply labeled as "The Next Scorsese" or "The Next Ashby" or "The Next Coppola", but is a true original without falling into the auteurist trap of repeating his obsessions with little variation from movie to movie. Who else can make three movies centered around one theme as "Vengeance" and come to three different conclusions each time with each film having their own distinctive style?
So, although the likelihood is that, despite "Thirst" being the first Park Chan-Wook film released by a studio dependent, I will be very surprised if many will flock to see it. And, most likely, some of those willing to see will be turned off by what they see. We truly need directors like this to provoke us meaningfully and who have a true understanding what the art of filmmaking is all about. Great movies are more about being unable to shake off what you have just witnessed than merely being entertained. This is a film than makes you question whether you understand your own true nature.
"Thirst" was viewed at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.