Saturday, May 02, 2009

Like a Bakjwi Out of Hell

Yesterday I went to see Park Chan-wook's new film, THIRST (Bakjwi in Korean). And like most of his films, this one is heavy on atmosphere and light on logic, as much blood is spilled in exotically retro buildings, but for little purpose.

As you have probably heard, THIRST is a vampire movie. Song Gang-ho stars as a Catholic priest named Sang-hyun who goes to Africa to participate in a strange medical vaccine experiment and comes back to Korea a vampire. In Korea he meets up with an old childhood friend has an affair with his friend's odd wife (Kim Ok-vin, spelling her name just as oddly).

I will try to avoid spoilers in this little review, but take care, depending on how sensitive you are about such things.

Many people are calling it a return to form for Park, and it is much more reminiscent of OLDBOY and his violence trilogy, at least in terms of visuals and "shocking" scenes. THIRST definitely looks great (thanks to the always amazing design work of Ryoo Seong-hee) and the editing and shooting are extremely well done. In fact, this is probably Park's best camerawork yet, with almost every scene presented very creatively and interestingly.

I also thought this was the most David Cronenberg-like film Park has made, with the medical/science overtones of the film, the plentiful and gross wounds (a la VIDEODROME) and the nasty broken fingernails (a la THE FLY).

However, there was a lot about THIRST that I did not like. Most seriously, the story is very silly and for the first 90 minutes it is quite dull (although it does pick up in the last 30 minutes). Because all the characters in THIRST are so stylized and odd, I had little concern for or interest in any of them. And nothing makes a film less shocking than when a director is deliberately trying to shock (with the possible exception of Peter Jackson's MEET THE FEEBLES, which was truly and wonderfully revolting).

One problem I had with Park's previous film, I'M A CYBORG BUT THAT'S OKAY was that, despite the film being set in a mental institution, it felt like Park did not know anything about mental illness. This time, despite the vampire theme, it seems like he does not know much about the vampire genre. He does not add anything new to the mythos, or use vampirism to make any interesting comments on society, religion or the like.

Sang-hyun's "descent into depravity" was not even terribly deprave really. He has a bunch of sex, drinks some blood, sucks some toes... Not much to write home about. The story really, really drags for the first 90 minutes rather pointlessly.


The film only really picks up when woman Tae-ju changes, about 30 minutes before the end of the film. Again, this is nothing we have not seen before, but at least it is pretty amusing and she gives the movie a lot more action and energy. Kim's acting here is quite good, and she plays evil quite well.


Despite the spike in energy for the last 30 minutes, the end does not really work either. Sure it looks nice, but it makes little sense if you think about it. And the final shot is quite reminiscent of several other vampire movies.

Oh, and I really disliked just about everything with Shin Ha-kyun. Usually he is such a good actor, but in this role he was quite the ham. Not sure, though, how much of that was his acting and how much was the character he was playing.

Will you like the film? Hard to say... Even if you are a hard-core Park Chan-wook fan, this is an odd film. There is not much action or horror in it for genre fans, nor many ideas to think about for the arthouse crowd. But I have never been a huge fan of director Park (mostly because I think he is so talented, he should be using his talents on better scripts), so many I am missing something his fans appreciate. Certainly Park's camerawork is more athletic than ever, and often is quite breathtaking. But overall, I thought THIRST was quite poor... and too often outright ridiculous.

UPDATE: Kim Kyu Hyun over at Darcy's website has his review up of THIRST. Quite positive and an interesting contrast to my (more accurate) review.

UPDATE 2: Derek Elley of Variety has also weighed in about THIRST, and apparently has felt much the same way that I did about it.

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On a totally different note, kudos to Home CGV for showing the old virus film OUTBREAK today, as the world worries about a potential outbreak of swine flu. Kind of funny, I thought. I just wish they had dedicated the day to showing all virus-related films, like 28 DAYS LATER or even the old classic PLAGUE.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your timely, and quite quite honest!, review. I suppose as Park grows more into a venerable position (the lone Korean entry at Cannes In Competition and all), the gap between his strong visuals and dubious stories becomes more pronounced. Shin Ha-kyun, bless his heart and talents, also did some unexpected amount of hamming in The Game. Maybe it is his character, as you said. Do you think he's meant to be a little grotesque, like the actors playing terrible in-laws?


kushibo said...

I stopped at "spoiler coming, kind of," but I think I will still try to find a way to see this movie, even if I have to wait until I'm in Korea during the summer and see it on DVD (though it probably wouldn't come out by early August, I suppose).

Vampires seem so clearly not an East Asian genre, so I find it interesting that the priest character in the movie has to go to a foreign country, to Africa specifically, to bring vampirism to Korea. Sounds almost like an allegory for the spread of AIDS to Asia, sort of.