I walked into the cinema with my ears ringing. On one side, I was well aware that this film is, thus far, one of the highest grossing film in Korea at this point of time in the year, and at this point of time of my writing. That means that it has beaten ‘Wolverine’ (which came out the same weekend), and sort of officially kick-started Korea’s own summer season (Bong Jung-ho’s ‘Mother’ and Hong Sang-soo’s ‘Like You Know It All’ will be making their bow soon). And why shouldn’t it? It’s a story about a vampire priest falling in love. Sounds interesting enough, but add in Park Chan-wook, arguably one of, if not the most visionary of Korean filmmakers I’ve come across, releasing his first film in two years, and Song Kang-ho, one of the most popular Korean actors of our time. Throw in the obligatorily beautiful Korean actress (Kim Ok-bin), and you have quite a dish churned out onto the table there.
On the other hand (or ear), the atmosphere was ringing with disappointment. On one level is the reviews that I didn’t really ask for, but came to me regardless. “Oh, I was so disappointed,” my editor moaned to me. “I really expected more from him.” The same echoed from almost every Park, Kim and Lee that walked through the corridors of my school, all offering their two cents worth, and all of them having about the same weight in gold.
It’s not that heavy, apparently.
But I’ve no concern nor care in the world for gold. I want what I want, and that is to see Park Chan-wook’s films. In the cinema. I’m a big fan of his (in fact, ‘Oldboy’ kickstarted my interest in Korean cinema), and as I walked in, I realised one other thing: that it’s the first time I’m seeing a film by Park Chan-wook in the cinema.
I couldn’t have picked a more interesting point to start with. That point is Sang Hyun (Song Kang-ho), a priest who ticks all the right boxes. He does charity and volunteer work, is devout in his faith, and tries hard to better the lives of those around him. Nevertheless, the environment he is in means that he is constantly surrounded by death, and it slowly eats away at him. Yearning for a solution, he went off to Africa to take part in an experiment to cure a deadly virus. Things didn’t quite work out to plan, but instead of dying, he is ‘reborn’, seemingly cured and healed.
Returning to Korea, he finds that news of his recovery travelled fast, and almost everyone believed him to be a miraculous healer of sorts. This lead to more and more people attending his service, during which he met his childhood friend, Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) and his wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). Soon enough, he finds himself being more and more attracted to Tae-ju, almost at the same time that symptoms of his illness came back. Slowly but surely, with the help of sunlight and people’s blood, he realises that he has an uncontrollable thirst for blood. This, coupled with his own desire for Tae-ju and her reciprocacy, leads to almost unimaginable consequences for the both of them.
Almost unimaginable, but the key word is almost. After all, this is a Park Chan-wook film we’re talking about, and if there’s one card that he has up his sleeve, it is one of vision. In watching the film, I could not fault almost anything that came on-screen. Perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough, but I couldn’t help but be swayed by the camera moving left, right, up, down. Particularly impressive for me were the bits where the camera moved above the partitions curtains in the hospital wing. In one, smooth shot, we move from one of Sang-hyun’s dying patients to him coupling with Tae-ju in the next bed. Another impressive bit was when Sang-hyun leaps over buildings with Tae-ju. It was an ecstatic moment for both, and we get to share in with that, however short it was. And so it was with the mise-en-scene: not actually very colourful, but incredibly moody, and sets the right tone and mood for the scenes (check out the hospital hues, and the latter scenes in Kang-woo’s house).
Of course, all the aesthetics in the world couldn’t really save a film if it doesn’t really have a strong story to begin with. In that sense, then, this is probably where ‘Thirst’ does not compare as favourably compared with the director’s previous films. Though the premise of a vampire priest seems interesting and unique enough, this is essentially a love story. Yeah, I know that seems to really fly in the face of what I had written here thus far, but that’s what it is. It is a romantic story, a love story at its core. More specifically, the film deals a lot with how that love is dealt with. We see how the priest deals with his increasing thirst for blood, as he slowly degenerated from being a human being (for all practical purposes) to being a being that is almost exclusively driven by lust. We also see his realisation at this change, at his own shapeshifting ability, and how his love transformed Tae-ju as well. Slowly but surely, he questions almost every decision he makes, agonising between his Catholic beliefs and his more primal needs.
‘Thirst’, then, as the title suggests, asks the question of what kind of man or person we become when we are driven by something that is not within our control. We all have love, we all have lust…but what happens when this mix of sex, aggression and desire spills over outside of our control? What happens when person losing control is a priest, who is supposed to be the guiding light in the community? In fact, this exploration of his Catholic guilt was deep, excavating right into his soul. Or at least it felt like it. In that regard, I thought that the questions were well-asked, and though it is not so predictable after all, the film did well to answer them, too. This was helped along greatly by Song Kang-ho, who I have not seen in such a role since…well, perhaps in Bong Jung-ho’s ‘Memories of Murder’ some years ago. Most of the time, he’s playing fun-loving variations of himself (to great effect, I might add, as can be seen in ‘The Good, The Bad, The Weird’). Here, he exercised his acting chops for a bit, which is something that Kim Ok-bin did rather well as well. I’m not that familiar with her work, but she piqued my interest here enough for me to check out her other stuff. Simply put: she’s not merely the eye candy here. Not by a long shot.
All roads, however, leads to Park Chan-wook. As I walked out of the cinema, I realised that his vision, his ideas, are both his own gift and curse at the same time. Having reached the incredible highs of ‘JSA’ and the Revenge trilogy, I suppose most people won’t be as easily satisfied with this particular effort. I can see why my friends were disappointed with the film, but they were going into the cinema, like I did, with great expectations. Though my expectations were great, I was pleased to realise that this film highlights the fact that it’s not just about Park Chan-wook and the colours of his scene. Sure, some scenes were still difficult to look at (and I’m not talking about Song Kang-ho’s dick, either). It’s about the whole coming together; though not as lavish as ‘Oldboy’, or even ‘I’m A Cyborg, But It’s OK’, I can see that he went back to basics, using the little things to imbue bigger and grander meanings into the scenes. All of these led to a grandstanding finale, which was incredibly funny and sad both at the same time.
A pity, then, that many people had other expectations.
The other thing Fikri was disappointed about was the lack of subtitles, even though it was promised by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, no less. What’s going on, mate?