Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thirst (Bakjwi)

Fragile Power

The response to Park Chan-wook's Thirst is nothing less than polarizing. You either love it like one of my friends who rated it amongst the best he'd seen, or you loathe it like another who had staged a walkout. Personally I do not think this film deserved such a negative response, however, it did get a little indulgent at times, and schizophrenic too in its narrative, but had its moments which basically boiled down to the power wielded by and given to the female of the species, and the havoc that it creates.

Song Kang-ho is one of my favourite Korean actors, and he's extremely versatile as seen from his filmography, which his Shiri happened to be my first Korean film ever seen in a theatre. One of his latest film, Secret Sunshine, had his character convert to a religion because he had the hots for a member of the opposite sex. Here in Thirst, Song plays Priest Sang-hyeon, a devout man of god who decided to subject himself to a medical experiment which went somewhat awry, but it turned him into a vampire. Keeping his secret under wraps, he soon gets worshipped and exalted to sainthood because he's the first of 500 survivors of that experiment, and gets called upon to do miraculous favors that he knows he has no ability to perform.

That about sums up the premise of the first act, with Song caught in a dilemma of being a man of faith, and being the object of worship instead. And Park's story begins to tempt the vampire-Priest, who has so far managed to keep his urges repressed, despite the constant need for blood to keep his condition under control. The temptation comes in the form of a woman (naturally), and a beautiful one at that. Sang-hyeon's childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), his wife Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin) and his mom Lady Ra (Kim Hae-sook) enter his life, and the games begin, with the seduction, lust and plans for murder being suggested so that Sang-hyeon can make away with Tae-joo.

Kim Ok-vin's Tae-joo probably enveloped the evolution of the female standing in society, and it is her character that stood out strongly in the film. When we're first introduced to her, we see that she's extremely depressed, and unhappy with her life, seeking escape through routine and harsh treatment in waiting hand and foot at her husband, sprinting away into the darkness of night, only to know that she has no where to go but to return home. But with the Priest, and the knowledge of what he is, there's more than meets the eye to the character, whom I feel overshadows the story of the vampire-priest even, as she schemes her way toward a level playing field.

Possessing the innate power to tempt, and sacrificing her body (hence Kim Ok-vin's screen nudity) even to the extent of inducing Sang-hyeon to renounce religion (much like Adam and Eve and their fall from grace after munching on that forbidden fruit undoubtedly spurred on by you know who). It dwelt on the possession of absolute power, and with it the ability like Sang-hyeon to either do good, or do nothing but keep it under control, or like Tae-joo to careen irresponsibly toward freedom now that there's absolutely no barriers weighing her down.

The relationship dynamics between the lovers also undergoes massive changes, especially with Tae-joo being Sang-hyeon's equal, and from the days of old where the woman is reliant on the man to bring home the bacon (or blood in this case), her ability to do the same pretty much makes him redundant, and in some ways, inferior as she bites the hand that feeds, relegating him to domestic duties and becoming a constant nag in his check and balance of her extreme, violent ways.

This pretty much propels the film in its violent crescendo to the finale. While Park's earlier works have demonstrated his deft handling of violence, fans of those films wouldn't find such scenes lacking in Thirst, although the director does string you up high and dry for quite a while before allowing your desire for screen violence to be quenched. And these come nothing less than bone-crunching, bloody acts where crimson blood gets spewed and spurted, especially in stark contrast to the all-white rooms that one of the sets got furnished under.

Thirst however is far from the perfect film, although as one basking under the guise of a violent, romantic tale it does work to a certain extent thanks to the characters created, and both Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-vin's captivating performances. There are a couple of scenes in the last third which stuck out like a sore thumb as it didn't gel with the rest of the narrative smoothly although it yet added another dimension to Tae-joo's character, and I suspect that the 10 minute extension to Thirst which will be shown at the upcoming Pusan International Film Festival, would probably address this.

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