This year will see three of South Korea’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors present their English language debuts. Kim Jee Woon, Park Chan Wook, and Bong Joon Ho have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. We continue to look at the films of Park Chan Wook, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.
Director: Park Chan Wook
Cast: Song Kang Ho, Kim Ok Bin, Kim Hae Suk, Shin Ha Kyun, Park In Hwan, Oh Dal Su, Song Young Chang,
Plot: A catholic priest volunteers himself to be given a deadly virus in the name of research. However, during a blood transfusion he is given the blood of a vampire which soon makes him lust, covet, and commit the worst of sins.
After breaking free from the realms of Vengeance with I’M A CYBORG…BUT THAT’S OK, Park Chan Wook decided he would once again descend into the darkness of humanity. He chose, as his main subject, vampires. Now then, vampires in our current climate are shrouded with disdain thanks to the likes of Hollywood cack such as TWILIGHT. 2008 saw a dark horse once again give vampirism some bite (anyone?), in the form of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (my personal favourite vampire movie). But was there really anything fresh to tackle in a vampiric motion picture? Well, if we look at other Korean genre films such as Kim Jee Woon’s western THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD, and Bong Joon Ho’s creature feature THE HOST, South Korea certainly has a way of injecting a fresh voice into a tired and familiar genre. It’s with great relief that THIRST, is perhaps the second greatest vampire film of all time.
The reason Park is so successful in his construction of the familiar mythos is that he explores every single facet in a genuinely enthralling way. First of all we have our main character, Sang Hyeon, a priest. Making our protagonist a man of the cloth makes it all the more tragic when viewing his gradual descent and submission to all of life’s salacious temptations. Sang Hyeon is a man who has dedicated his life to purity, so when he gets the cravings to suck blood, make love, and murder, it’s damn powerful stuff. Song Kang Ho’s performance is so striking in its subtlety. Many actors would have taken the temptation to sin as an excuse to go nuts, with wide eyed grins and garish cackling. Song always gives us that element of shame and disgust at what he is doing.
Another Hollywood trope is to take vampires and give them an extensive universe in which to operate. UNDERWORLD, TWILIGHT, DAYBREAKERS and others have given us worlds filled with vampires, which for me has turned them into easily disposable cannon fodder, placing them in the genre of action more often than that of horror. This film keeps its vampires isolated, lonely, and at no point hints towards any form of acceptance. Nor does it glamorise the lifestyle of feasting on the blood of innocents in the name of self-preservation. Sang Hyeon is also transformed into a vampire without even coming into contact with one. Instead, he volunteers to be infected with a deadly disease and it just so happens that he receives a bag of donated blood from a fierce fanged fiend. We never discover more than that. It’s great to just set aside the mystery and focus on character. Making the act of metamorphosis a non-violent act that saves the life of a man donating his body to science makes THIRST all the more complex and delicious.
Sang Hyeon leaves the monastery where the experiments were taking place and is seen as a miracle man, having overcome the terrible disease. In a scene reminiscent of that from LADY VENGEANCE, Sang Hyeon is greeted by devoted followers who put him upon a pedestal. Sang Hyeon soon finds himself approached by desperate family members asking him to pray for their sick loved ones. This is how Sang Hyeon bumps into an old family of friends lead by Lady Ra (Kim Hae Suk), her son, Kang Woo (Shin) and his wife, Tae Ju (Kim Ok Bin). Upon Sang Hyeon’s visits to their family home he sees an overbearing mother, a wimpy and whiny son, and a downtrodden wife. Sang Hyeon becomes intrigued by Tae Ju, who he perceives to be a delicate and fragile creature.
The two share moments together until Sang Hyeon eventually gives in to temptation and commits adultery. It’s something he is far from proud of, but since he finds evidence of Kang Woo physically harming Tae Ju, he finds a way to justify his love. In a beautifully quiet moment between Sang Hyeon and Tae Ju, she runs through the streets barefooted in an attempt to feel some kind of escape from her trapped existence. From a distance she sees Sang Hyeon, and as she turns to run the other way he is instantly behind her and lifting her off the ground effortlessly. As Park focuses on their feet, Sang Hyeon slips off his shoes and places Tae Ju into them. This simple gesture destroys every single piece of dialogue and supposedly ‘romantic’ gestures from TWILIGHT. That’s how you use visuals to tell your story!
Sang Hyeon continues to drink blood from a coma patient, refusing to kill to satisfy his urges. However, after finding stab wounds on Tae Ju’s legs, the two conspire to get rid of Kang Woo. It’s a scene, like so many in Korean cinema, that is played for equal amounts of tension and laughs. Taking Kang Woo out on a lake to fish, Tae Ju and Sang Hyeon speak openly in the moments leading up to Kang Woo’s murder. The way in which they completely ignore Kang Woo as they discuss how to do it, shows the characters in a chilling light. After she discovers her son has died, Lady Ra drinks herself into a comatose state, and lives lifelessly with Tau Ju and Sang Hyeon. It’s then that the film becomes even more engaging. We discover that Kang Woo never actually laid a hand on Tae Ju and she’s quite the manipulative cow. Sang Hyeon and Tae Ju are racked by guilt and soon see Kang Woo everywhere they look. In one darkly comical scene, as the two try and have sex, Kang Woo appears between them.
Tae Ju and Sang Hyeon are soon pushed apart, but when Sang Hyeon finds out the truth he almost kills Tae Ju. He brings her back as a vampire and finds that this is his biggest mistake. He creates a violent monster of a woman that enjoys her kills. The two are soon taking a road trip, but before this Sang Hyeon sexually assaults one of his devoted followers. This is his way of setting them free of their idolisation. It’s harsh and brutal, but it still comes from the heart. When these two lovers reach their destination, Tae Ju is shocked to find they are in the middle of nowhere and the sun is rising. It’s a scene with more intensity than any action film. Tae Ju viciously tries to hold on to life by looking for places to hide, but it’s all in vein. It’s a tragic end for both characters, who are likable despite their sins.
Park employs so many fantastic techniques, that you really feel this is as realistic as a vampire film could get. When Sang Hyeon first discovers his powers, we are taken on a beautifully edited mini-adventure of all the sounds from around Sang Hyeon. His new super hearing almost drives him mad as we are taken from room to room, from a couple having sex to a lone cat. The effects used for the vampires jumping and gliding abilities also have a gentle panache to them. Their jumps and landings are handled with all the grace and wonderment of a ballet dancer. In a scene that is actually quite similar to one from TWILIGHT, in which Sang Hyeon takes Tae Ju and leaps around with her, we see the utter elation on the face of Tae Ju. It brings joy in the darkness, and believe me when I say it’s dark. However, this is also another unconventional romance from Park. There is never any doubt as to why these two would be attracted to and want to destroy each other at the same time.
As a horror, THIRST succeeds in being a confrontational, terrifying, and immersive look at a volatile relationship. Packed with sinister imagery and strong performances it easily transcends any preconceptions you have about the genres of horror, romance, and that of a vampire film. Park also shows wonderful restraint at never coming out and attacking religion despite the ever present iconography. Park Chan Wook himself said:
‘In the West, there has been this great accumulation of clichés in vampire movies. So just by taking these clichés out, I thought I could come up with something unique.’
That he most certainly did. Dark, depressing, but also with hints of humour and real love, THIRST rightfully won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. If you think vampires have become dull, predictable, and lost their mystique, then may I suggest sitting down and enjoying another tremendous film from a master of cinema?
What To Take To STOKER? Beautifully subtle visuals and cruel but somehow likable characters look as though they would be at home in Park’s latest. I’m hoping to feel some real conflict of emotions, as Park is adept at providing multiple view points and characters that find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations beyond their control.
STOKER is released 1st March 2013. It stars Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Goode, Lucas Till, Jacki Weaver, and Alden Ehrenreich.
We’ll be taking a break for the next two weeks, after which we will start our look at the films of Bong Joon Ho. You can find all the articles in the series here.