Being a big fan of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, I was definitely excited and keen to see Thirst (박쥐; Bakjwi) his newest release that won the Jury prize at Cannes this year. The story is of Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a priest who willingly undergoes a medical experiment to help find a cure for a virus. The vaccine doesn’t work and he is infected himself, but makes a miraculous recovery that draws in parishioners for prayer and healing. Among these is an old childhood friend suffering from cancer who invites him to join his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), mother and friends in their weekly game of Mah-jongg. It’s during this game he has a connection with Tae-ju and later has a relapse, waking up a very different kind of being.
When the Park Chan-wook introduced the film, before having his dinner, he said he always appreciated UK audiences the most as we seem to be the only ones who actually understand the humour in the situations he portrays. This held true during the showing that, interspersed between the wincing, a lot of guilty laughter could be heard at the scenes and situations that occur during the film. I could see Philip wincing a lot from the corner of my eye at scenes that didn’t bother me in the least – which means that I have missed my calling as a trauma specialist or, more likely, that I am a little de-sensitised to the violence and darkness in Korean movies of this genre.
‘Thirst’ is a very powerful movie with strong imagery and ideas about faith, desires and temptation and it’s no small coincidence that it’s Tae-ju that provides the catalyst for the priest’s relapse and then fall into temptation. Like a modern-day telling of the story of Genesis it has the behaviour and temptations of a woman at its heart and the desire for knowledge that is forbidden. It’s definitely a film I will watch again to take in more of the more complex ideas it covers, and films that have inspired it and then perhaps I will write a more in depth article on my perceptions of what has been portrayed. It’s definitely worth going to see, just remember to laugh even if you are wincing. The violence and explicit nature are not done gratuitously, but a necessary part of portraying the world in which we live that is just as dark sometimes and just as intense.
The use of light, blood, nature, night and clothing is also very detailed and well thought out.
I really like the actress Kim Ok-bin in the roles I have seen her in so far (Voices, Over the Rainbow). Known for being outspoken and unpretentious, I also think she has a depth to her acting that shows she will be one of the top stars in the future, particularly if she continues to select roles like she does. She manages to transform well with each role, so it takes a while for me to place where I have seen her before and thus preventing any preconception to the character she plays. In Thirst she really shines as the manipulative and dark-souled Tae-ju, trapped by her life in servitude to the people who took her in and then by the relationship with Sang-hyun.
Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, The Host) is one of my favourite Korean actors and is, as always, very watchable and carries the role of a troubled priest very well. He too likes to pick a variety of roles, so even though his face is far easier to recognise, he does well at distinguishing the characters he plays rather than being a lazy typecast. Indeed this is the third film that he stars in that is directed by Park Chan-wook.
The rest of the cast too were well chosen, particularly that there was a realistic feel to it with the inclusion of a Filipina actress as one of the card player’s friends, an aspect of Korean life that is not often addressed in modern media. Tae-ju’s mother-in-law gives a masterful performance, particularly in the second half of the film, and the husband suitably brash, and yet pathetic at the same time.
Thirst is released on 16 October 2009. This review was based on a preview screening at the Curzon Soho on 5 October 2009