THIS MONDAY! Film Comment Selects Director Park Chan-wook’s THIRST

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Model Catholic priest Sang-hyun (Song Kong-ho, The Host (2006)) has a calling to serve those teetering on the edge: dying hospital patients, the suicidal. Restless, powerless to strike back against death, Sang-hyun signs up for a high-risk vaccine trial meant to combat a deadly virus. As the doctor who receives him at the clinic explains, to exhibit symptoms is to die. The doctor asks the priest why he has come: Sang-hyun answers, “I want to save people.”

And yet despite his faith, the disease takes Sang-hyun. While performing a Bach cantata — Cantata BWV 82, one ending with the aria “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod” (“I look forward to death”)) — a firehose of blood flutes from the wooden recorder. Drained of blood, at the edge of death, Sang-hyun receives a transfusion shortly before coding in the clinic’s ICU. But then comes the miracle: from beneath the sheet issues Sang-hyun’s voice with a bizarre inversion of the Leper’s Prayer translating as something like “Make everyone avoid me as a leper whose skin rots;/ Make me immobile like a person whose limbs have been amputated.” Out of 500 volunteer test subjects, only Sang-hyun survives.

But back in Korea, abnormalities to his startling recovery begin to surface for Sang-hyun. There are those who embraces him as a saint and beg him to pray for them. But what can explain his sudden sensitivity to sunlight, and his gnawing craving for human blood?

Director Park Chan-wook‘s Thirst speculates: what if the priest doesn’t survive the disease because of faith, or because of the vaccine trial? What if instead of a cure, he receives another, far stranger disease? What if the transfusion of blood in the clinic carries within it … vampire blood?

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Park Chan-wook is a highly-regarded, mid-career film director in Korea who in the past decade has gained a massive international reputation due to his stylish “Vengeance Trilogy”, particularly festival/cult film favorite Oldboy (2003). (My pick of trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002).) It is significant that Oldboy, though an adaptation of a popular Japanese manga title, gains a great deal of its icky, disturbing power directly from Park’s own preoccupations as a re-interpreter of the work — for example: the (in)famous twist at the end of the film. (Expect that the upcoming Will Smith adaptation will chicken out and source the less provocative manga instead.) While there exist fans who enjoy Oldboy solely for the extremity of its style and violence, I believe  situating it within the context of Park’s work as a whole, the film is much more critical of the impotence of violence/revenge than a celebration of it. (Provocative article here!)

From powerful political thriller J.S.A. (2000) to unfairly neglected I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), Park leverages his high-concept-crossbred-with-adaptation plots to examine human behavior and the effect of man’s actions on others, tracing a line from characters’ well-meaning initial intentions all the way to (often horrifying) unintended consequences. As with I’m a Cyborg, Thirst doesn’t exist solely to resolve its conceptual premise, but continues to deepen and complicate all the way into the final minutes of the film. Thirst both is and isn’t a vampire film; while Park draws metaphoric strength from the vampire tale, the power of the film lies with the human personalities trapped within it.

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Thirst is also an adaptation of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, the novel/play that through grim, gritty, “scientifically detached” portraiture of its haunted, murderer protagonists, introduced the style of “Naturalism” to the Western world. While vampirism is something that “happened” to Sang-hyun, how he chooses to respond to the new conditions of his life takes shape after he encounters his childhood acquaintance, Kang-woo (Park regular Shin Ha-kyun) and his once-adopted-sister-now-wife, Tae-ju (the lovely Kim Ok-vin). Tae-ju comes to Sang-hyun for help, seeking an escape from her mother-in-law and sickly, needy husband. And she offers Sang-hyun help in return. (“I wish to help the needy,” she tells him. “And you are a single, needy man.”) And as anyone familiar with Thérèse Raquin expects, their plans to save each other at the cost of those “deserving” revenge will not proceed smoothly, trapping them more tightening clutches of their predicament.

Matthew Griffin

FILM COMMENT SELECTS SPECIAL EVENT
THIRST
Monday, July 20, 2009 at 7:30pm Buy tickets

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