Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wendigo Meets THIRST (Bakjwi, 2009)

There's my friend Wendigo's vampire collection (big), my collection (small), and then there's the Albany Public Library, which gave us a fresh subject when it acquired Park Chan-wook's recent horror film. Wendigo has never seen a Korean film before, (except, as he corrects me, for A*P*E) but there isn't really that much of a cultural hurdle here. It's very much a western-style vampire film, as might be telegraphed by the protagonist being a Roman Catholic priest. His vampiric attributes don't seem particularly Korean or Asian, though he doesn't have the complete Euro-American package either. He has no fangs and, as far as we know, no aversion to holy symbols, but he does have superhuman strength and leaping ability, as well as a vulnerability to daylight.

Song Kang-ho as the afflicted priest in Thirst.

The most distinctive thing about the movie, in Wendigo's opinion, is our hero's dysfunctional co-dependent relationship with the female lead, an orphan girl raised like a drudge in the household of the priest's sick friend, now her husband. They descend into a kinky romance that is really more reminiscent of modern "urban fantasy" fiction than many American vampire films. It spirals out of control after she goads him into killing her husband, when he kills then turns her. While he struggles against his growing temptation to "all kinds of sinful pleasures" and refuses to hunt for blood (he siphons it in small portions from hospital patients), she instantly embraces her predatory nature -- a nature that was arguably there all along.

Kim Ok-bin as Tae-ju first experiences the thrill of the ride across the rooftops, then the thrill of the hunt on her own.

Vampirism is an escape for her, and she's not the only character who sees the accursed priest as an ironic source of salvation. Because of his "miraculous" survival of the Emmanuel Virus via the infected transfusion during his sojourn in Africa, our hero has a small cult that craves his healing touch, little knowing of the real power inside him. A senior priest learns of the curse and its physical benefits and asks for some blood to cure his blindness.

Everybody wants a piece of our hero, whether they know what they're getting or not.

Overall, it's a film of its time in its portrayal of the perverse attraction of vampirism. For the priest himself the curse is like a consequence of a masochistic compulsion to contract the virus that he sees tormenting patients at his local hospital. Whatever his conscience tells him, he has an impulsive instinct to ask for trouble that dooms others (including almost all of the mah-jongg club he joins) no matter how he tries to control the consequences. In a way, the hero is another "noble" vampire, but Thirst shows that nobility will only go so far when pitted against all the insatiable impulses of our time and condition.

Vampirism has an erotic power at times (above), but a vampire's own dreams are sometimes less than erotic (below).

Wendigo also notes that vampirism here might be seen as a sick parody of Catholicism, with our hero as a kind of anti-Christ figure who returns from the dead, who performs miracles, whose blood is power, yet can't help destroying other people's souls. I don't know if Park is Catholic himself, but he wouldn't be the first person to equate the mass with vampirism, I suppose. Catholicism may be an exotic element to him on which vampirism can piggyback, but we don't think the film is anti-Catholic. The priest's flaw isn't his religion but his masochistic streak, his embrace of suffering as a kind of self-indulgence.

Wendigo finds a resemblance between Thirst and Let the Right One In in their common emphasis on the troubled nature of whoever might become a vampire's follower. Just as Oscar in the Swedish film is profoundly maladjusted, victimized yet alienated in a way that limits our sympathy for him, so goes Thirst's female lead. A feral girl who runs through the night barefoot (leading us to intially wonder whether she was supernatural herself), she's troubled and hostile in a way that telegraphs that turning her can not be a good idea.

Technically, Wendigo likes the way the film looks, including its mix of wirework and CGI for the leaping and strength-feat effects. He also likes the location work and art direction for its portrayal of the girl's confining living space and neighborhood. The screenplay succeeds in making character development make sense, and from what he could tell not knowing Korean, he liked the performances. As far as global vampire cinema goes, Wendigo still prefers Let the Right One In as a creepier film, but he thinks horror fans will enjoy Thirst, too.

Here's the official English-language trailer, uploaded to YouTube by TheMovieJunk:

1 comment:

Rev. Phantom said...

I keep meaning to check this out. I love Park Chan-wook's films, so I'm sure I'll like this one as well. Sounds like a pretty interesting take on vampirism.