This is the first of many alternating reviews East and I will be doing on Korean films. Some you will have heard of, many will be mysterious gems of cinematic flair and others just, awful. But Korean all the same.
I am belated. I am a belated person. I am the woman who stands in the centre of a room expounding the wonder of a film that was released years earlier and is a revelation to no one but herself. In Seoul I am no different, thus proving that equatorial placement does nothing to change a personality. Trawling the net one day I came across a great site for Korean cinema and was immediately drawn to Thirst. Feeling extremely big in my boots I told my co workers and was shot down when they told me it was an old film in Korea, released in 2008. Despite this, I went home drowning in enthusiasm; its lead role was played by Song Kang-ho, a stupendous actor who some may know as the lead in Bong Joon-ho's The Host. In Thirst he is ethereal, powerful and sexual dynamite. In reality he looks like this:
Ethereal, powerful and sexual dynamite. Kim Ok-bin plays alongside and while I feel little connection to her as a woman (she is tiny and child-like, I am not), her character is brilliantly fragile and furious. She is frightening. She is monumental. She doesn't need to bite you to make the hairs on your neck fall into rigor mortis.
Thirst is the most astounding combination of stories I've come across in a long time. There are haunting pictures of religious faith and love, sex scenes ugly and desperate and so sensual, murder for the right and wrong reasons. And there are vampires, make no mistake, but more compelling is the question asked throughout the film, 'can I be what I was and what I must without losing myself'?
Kang-ho plays a priest, Sang-hyun, helper of the sick, beloved by the people and unwavering in his faith. He volunteers to test a vaccine for the fatal Emmanuel Virus and, after falling ill, is given a blood transfusion. The blood is, of course, vampire blood. He goes into remission and is heralded as a miracle, a healer. He suffers no change of personality, no immediate physical transformation but soon notices the sun seems to burn brighter and he is weakening despite good health. The beauty of Sang-hyun's vampirism lies in its complete lack of drama; he recognises his thirst for blood, gives in to it without violence or disgust and ensures he will always have more. And where, you ask, would a priest turned vampire get his blood supply? Sang-hyun relocates to the city and works in hospitals, giving final counsel to the dying, praying for the terminally ill and stealing blood transfusion bags. His sermons are famous, drawing enormous crowds all under the belief that Sang-hyun is their saviour.
Enter Ok-bin, playing Tae-ju, the wife of Sang-hyun's childhood friend. Mistreated, emotionally twisted and beautiful in a kind of when-I-speak-I-am-raising-demons way, Tae-ju is drawn to Sang-hyun who, appropriately, hungers for her. And this is the exact moment when the plot of Emile Zola's Therese Raquin hijacks the remainder of the movie. No, I'm not joking and believe me, you will thank me for it. It happens abruptly and noticeably which is a shame for a film so intricately wound together. One moment I was watching a Korean film which hinted nothing toward its own end. The next I was anticipating every move and finding myself absolutely correct. I wont go into detail because those who have read it don't need me to and those who haven't will have one of the most controversial and fantastic novels of its time spoiled. I chalk up this sudden plot reveal as a negative but, in a way, knowing what was coming made it all the more hideous to watch. Characters become more vicious when you watch them carry out an inevitable evil; whatever you know of them is tainted by what you know they will do. And these two are truly diabolical.
At over two hours the film is long but too long? I don't think so. Whilst both Kang-ho and Ok-bin are superb actors, and their chemistry drips straight off the screen, it is Kang-ho's Sang-hyun that hurls Thirst forward. His moral dilemma is an undercurrent that breaks the surface during some of the most attractive cinematics I have ever seen. Fundamentally, Sang-hyun is a man of God. He takes what he needs to survive from people who will not miss it. He feels his faith diminishing but will not allow himself to be overcome. While he is alone he is able to separate his faith from his thirst. It is Tae-ju who brings him screaming to the door he has peeked into but kept so fastidiously closed. Their affair occurs almost subtly and with no sense of regret on Sang-hyun's part and it is this, not his vampire genes, that mark his break from faith. For Tae-ju he watches his religion fall into dust and for her love he loses his moral code. His downfall lies in an attempt to remain a priest in thought and man in action. He asks us if he can not be both and we say, well, we say many things.
Thirst's director, writer and producer, Park Chan-wook, must be a dark man. Maybe he lives in a house lit only with candles half-wicked and spends day light hours in dark-tinted cars and studios where lighting is restricted to the point of dictated. He communicates with colour and Thirst barely has any. Sang-hyun is pale and cassock-dressed, Tae-ju sickly and black-eyed and their scenes are shot mainly at night. Those located on the streets of the city are truly dazzling; lit with lamps, surrounded only by shadows and accompanied by the after effects of heavy rain. Everything is reflected but nothing can be seen. Chan-wook's utilisation of such dark atmospheres make the occasional scenes of violence all the more satisfying and show what is happening behind the eyes of the characters. The blood around Sang-hyun's mouth is piercing and brings out the colour of his eyes. Underneath his affair and sickness, if you will, he is honest. Though he may no longer be a priest he is what he is now and makes no apology or attempts to pretend. As is the blood he never wipes from his lips. The falsified assault wounds on Tae-ju's thighs look like rot coming through the canvas of her transparent skin. Her bruises hint at the darkness inside her soul and I, for one, asked 'where is the darkness in Sang-hyun.'
Watch this movie. Watch it in the dark, not because it will frighten you but because the colours are extraordinary and must be viewed within their own world. Watch this film and prepare to be attracted to every tiny moment that passes between the leads. And for the love of God, if you haven't already, go and read Therese Raquin.
Lara S. Williams
Lara, like a vampire, is much more active at night. Particularly when there is wine involved.