cinematographique

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Thirst ****

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Thirst

Since the Cannes premiere of Oldboy, the international acclaim that brought Chan-wook Park (박찬욱) into the Western lexicon has typically characterised his work as edgy, hip, graphic and violent. Finding a feature which doesn’t name-drop Tarantino is a tall order. Serious analysis has been sparse and in some quarters sweeping generalisations have been made, opinions reversed. A simple fact: in content, Park’s oeuvre denies characterisation. This truism does not extend to form. Across Joint Security Area, Sympathy, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, Cut and I’m A Cyborg, Park has demonstrated a wide ranging appeal and mastery of storytelling. He has also presented himself as an auteur who is defined by stylistic methodology and aesthetic habit, rather than by mise en scène and theme. Chan-Wook Park spins stories by showing, rather than telling.

This is not a literal claim – along the clichéd dichotomy of representation and exposition – but a figurative one. Park is in the game of articulating immanent experience, of showing precisely what he means in every detail, rather than constructing a referential whole, pointing to abstract notions. His meaning is to be felt under the skin of the film, not to be read from its images. Thirst (박쥐), a timely vampiric adaptation of Thérèse Raquin, illustrates this perfectly.

It begins thus: Father Sang-hyun volunteers at his local hospital, offering ministry to patients in palliative care. While he is well respected, he suffers silently from doubt and sorrow at the state of the world, and his inability to mitigate suffering and death. When he loses patience, Sang-hyun volunteers as a guinea-pig in the search for a vaccine to contain the Emmanuel Virus (EV). He hopes to save lives rather than continue as a powerless bystander. Unsurprisingly, he contracts the virus and dies – only to miraculously recover. As he returns home, his congregation begin to idolise Sang-hyun. Among them is a childhood acquaintance who suffers from cancer. His overbearing mother persuades Sang-hyun to assist. Over weekly games of mahjong, he finds himself viciously drawn to his friend’s wife, Tae-ju. As guilt overcomes him, his illness returns, and it becomes apparent the priest has become a vampire. His desires begin to diversify, and he drinks the blood of comatose patients. Gripped by a state of despair, he succumbs to lust as Tae-ju becomes attracted to his odd new physicality.

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I’m trying to express pain and fear; the fear that comes right before the violence, because you don’t know when it’s going to come, and the pain that comes straight after. And maybe that’s why audiences feel like I’m a cruel film-maker, despite the fact that very few people are killed in my films. I guess I probably make violent films partly because I can’t express my anger in my real life very well. There are always times in your life where people have humiliated you and you haven’t been able to stand up for yourself.”    Park Chan-Wook (from the Guardian)

Perhaps this explains the apparent thematic cohesion to Park’s films. He always returns, in different guises, to feelings of anger, injustice and satisfaction. The world of film is the world of desire, and it seems all too natural for a man so softly-spoken and conservatively mannered – for a society of these qualities – to have such charmingly obscene fantasies to express. In any case, I quote Park to confirm my suspicion that his objective is the articulation of real emotions. His films are a demand for satisfaction and the enactment of requisite retribution. They are not symbolic, but self-consciously phenomenal.

From when Sylvester Stallone butchers thousands, to when Miike Takashi cuts off his hero’s tongue, graphic violence on film so rarely has any emotional resonance. It is as though the subjective acts are flattened out as simulacra, manufactured a million times on film. Park’s violence is not so graphic, and he knows when to withhold – when not to show. But it is a thousand times more emotional, even as simulacra. Park shows us what surrounds violence – evokes the affective properties, fear and pain. Park’s oeuvre is not so much graphic about violence, as it is explicit about sensory phenomena. How, then, does he fall to task? Park places us deep within the scene.

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His camera practically dances about the set – between, above and below his cast and their immediate surroundings. It glides from eloquent framing of bodies in space, through lateral and vertical divisions in geometry and perspective, to expressive tracking shots that manipulate the dynamic between these dimensions. He places us behind, before, between his actors, in a schizophrenic emulation of subjective immanence – folding and expanding space as they move, and turning the camera’s dance into an affective sensory experience for his audience. If that sounds overblown, consider the passage where our hero, Father Sang-hyun, takes our heroine, Tae-ju, bounding through the night – we feel profoundly in motion.

Park cuts from shot to shot with fierce impatience. We are led to focus on every sensory detail he deems important to his character’s experience. Rather than composing these elements into more formal, lingering, internally referential and legible shots, Park prefers to show each part in turn, pointing to aspects of his fictional world rather like our senses point us to events in our world. We are never supposed to drink in an image and deconstruct it – our job is the reconstruction of experience from sense data. This is best exemplified in Sang-hyun’s first bout of vampiric hypersensitivity, with its hyperreal hallucination drawing all of one’s senses to attend to each of his.

The Park style is pop art. When it works, it is deeply affecting. Somehow, he does manage to show us how Sang-hyun feels – something happens, tantamount to aesthetic experience – our senses catch alight, hairs stand to attention. When it doesn’t work, when Park loses restraint, the picture becomes uncanny – it starts to become manga. Some minor edits might rectify this – but the problem runs deeper. Many critics, myself included, sometimes found it hard to connect with the characters. The cause of our distancing and disengagement, I think, is this overbearing effort to place us in the centre of events – rather than remaining on the periphery, letting the camera occupy an Archimedean point. Many scenes, particularly in the final act, would benefit from such restraint – letting us see characters in their environment, rather than insistently defining the space through which they move as the totality of the cinematic plane.

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Park can invoke many interlocking and reflexively expansive images in a scene. So it becomes frustrating as he cuts from one to another – with stylish verve – when he might zoom out a little and let us take in several ideas at once. Consider the scene where Sang-hyun devours and resurrects Tae-ju, with her mute mother sprawled on the floor down the corridor, playing silent witness. I sat through this, cringing at the awkward shot of Sang-hyun kneeling on the floor, at the cut to mother in the hallway – a simultaneous composition of these elements would have been more effective.

Coincidentally, I saw C.T. Dreyer’s Vampyr this week. It is an excellent counterpoint, and illustrates some of the limitations Park’s methods impose. Vampyr can be characterised by its oneiric formalism, its sombre procession of camera movements, impressionist dreamscapes and expressivist nightmares-within-dreams. With each technique, Dreyer asserts (as, to varying degrees, did the impressionist and expressivist painters) our presence to the world. The artist’s tools are manifest in the artwork. Park is deeply unromantic in both content and form, and by contrast, his film forces down one’s throat the world’s presence to us. The camera remains unseen, as we flow uncannily in and out of events. Park throws us into every figure, each movement, and even the infinitesimal, incidental events of his world are woven in with great intentionality, in sequence, in isolation.

The trouble with his approach is that Park misunderstands what experience is. It is in referential totality. It is impossible to articulate a world by showing what your characters look at, by objectifying what they feel. It is, however, feasible to represent a world, in as comprehensive and intraconnected a mould as possible, and let the audience try to experience it. This is the power of film – to construct a world for us (or mediate the world for us), that we may experience it anew. David Lynch has claimed that film cannot do consciousness, but it’s very good at abstraction. Park could learn something from this claim. Where he tries to show us how his characters feel, he might do better to tell us, and let us feel for ourselves. Why, then, is Thirst worthy of our detailed attention? These feelings are coloured by aesthetic habit, which elevates music video style into pop art.

Thirst5When one thinks of the elements in Japanese cinema – Oshima’s rainswept surfaces, snowflake filters and sun-saturated cityscapes, for example – Park’s homogeneous weather seems a little lackluster. Its absence even seems a little stagey. Where Park excels is in fluid. Thirst, so appropriately renamed, is preoccupied with the stuff. Blood, tears, rain and lake-water spill and dredge, pump and explode, saturate and are imbibed. Bodily fluids are exchanged liberally, creatively and gleefully. Park grew up, tellingly, with a fascination for both surrealism and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. His fascination with fluid dynamics goes back, possibly beyond Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. But there it achieved apotheosis, by the carving of his hero’s ankle in a running river. Here, as in his ‘vengeance’ films, Park presents the pulse of blood from the body, the viscous flow once spilled, and its aqueous diffusion in clouds of crimson. We watch blood dissolve in saline tears. It is drunk on the wrist and the neck, from the heart and tongue. It bursts through the air-holes of Sang-hyun’s flute. The colour is celebrated in Tae-ju’s sanguine retch across their whitewashed living-room floor – Park immediately cuts to the ceiling perspective. The colour is played against black and white palettes, our sense of tone reset against the deep blues of Tae-ju’s wardrobe. Thirst is utterly beautiful.

Its story is compelling and ethical, but Thirst labours under certain structural weaknesses. Rather than using vampirism as a conceit to complicate fraught romantic entanglements, Park sets it up as a precondition for all that unfolds. His protagonists are more believable for their all-too-human transformations – Sang-hyun retains his moral backbone, his profligacy, self-chastisement, and caring nature, yet physiological change unlocks the courage required to leave his world. He asks Tae-ju, “could I have slept with you were I not a vampire?”. She is transformed, via madness and death, from the archetypal oppressed housewife to an independent, free, expressive woman. Naturally, these transformations are in reality impossible – there are no vampires, and death cannot be undone – immediately situating us in a world of wish fulfillment. Having established vampirism as a condition for the possibility of female emancipation and priestly martyrdom, their impossibility (the impossibility of our protagonists’ release) is made concrete by vampirism’s subversion of these aspirations.

Contracting the EV virus provokes almost aphoristic inversions on a metaphysical plane. Through his pursuit of martyrdom, Sang-hyun’s desire to satisfy the prayers of others becomes unholy – he can miraculously cure illness, but only by bestowing the affliction of vampirism. In this world, answering a prayer is fulfilling a desire, and abating suffering is mortal sin. This world represents that of Catholic guilt. It is impossible for Sang-hyun to escape original and immediate sin, but as he retains his conscience, guilt leads to not only the infection of Tae-ju, but also their ultimate demise. By this stage they have passed into moral transgression, so guilt proves to be a redemptive force – demonstrating that Thirst is certainly less than iconoclastic.

Thirst6Similarly, once Tae-ju is reborn her masochistic behaviour – characteristic of subservience and silent rage – becomes sadistic behaviour. At this point I was troubled by the apparent misogyny behind the suggestion that her amoral world, her thirst for random acts of violence and infliction of suffering, was caused by liberation from her domestic imprisonment. Of course, her fundamental transformation takes place not upon liberation from domesticity and loveless marriage, but upon liberation from guilt. Her guilt drives her through madness – evoked with remarkable surrealism – to death, but she wakes without conscience or remorse. The ethically homogeneous world that results is quite horrific. Yet she retains the instinct to preserve her mother-in-law, demonstrating that there is no escape from domesticity. And without a sense of guilt, Sang-hyun must exercise conscience on Tae-ju’s behalf.

Park has indeed claimed the film is about conscious moral choices. It is, unfortunately, structurally destabilized by embracing the amorality of Tae-ju. For the final act of Thirst, she becomes essentially non-empathetic, unsympathetic. One also feels that her presence, as a force of sadistic madness, is designed to develop the role of the male protagonist. While this follows logically from Sang-hyun resurrecting her, it runs against the grain of Park’s (vituperative, yet just) heroines. Perhaps if her madness was accented, her acts more palpably upsetting and horrific, then they would seem less incoherent and misplaced. Tae-ju emerges as an unbalanced and indefensible antiheroine. Thirst had me absorbed and committed for two thirds of its running time, but Tae-ju pushed me overboard.

The last act is, in any case, the weakest. Park fails to close the final scene when appropriate, and where it might have been perspicacious or reflective, he settles for baffling CGI and excessive gratuity. Lending a shred of austerity to this moment and leaving something to our imaginations would no doubt have been preferable. There is a further suspect CGI sequence in which Sang-hyun chases Tae-ju across rooftops with vampiric leaps. On the other hand, Park includes a Lynchian shot of a car’s headlights speeding down a road, and the disturbing image of Tae-ju unfurling from a black mass to surprise her quarry.

Thirst7The better part of that final scene is also quite delightful, and showcases the irreverent visual wit Park exercises in abundance. His sense of humour came across its perfect tune in Oldboy, and here, at least, it remains pitch black. In an early bout of guilt, and despite having preached on the ultimate sin of suicide, Sang-hyun throws himself out a window after drinking a patient’s blood. After his head punches through a car’s windscreen, he finds himself alive and healing, but stuck in a ridiculous slapstick pose, and recalling the suicide of Oldboy’s opening act. Then there is vulgarity, best exemplified by one of the most tolerable fart jokes on film. The most deranged laughter is wrung from intense passages of surreal, expressive grief, in which a murdered party returns from his aqueous grave. But my favourite episode is the final scene – a series of escalating slapstick jokes generated by the petulant bickering of two superhuman entities. While its comedy is less concentrated than in Oldboy, Thirst is more concerned with the erotic aspect.

Thirst is widely acknowledged for eschewing the tradition amongst vampire fictions of referring metaphorically to sexual intercourse, whether yielding hedonistically or abstaining virtuously. Since Park is concerned with guilt, not the fact of sex, it is presented frankly as an aspect of his protagonists’ human relationship – vampirism is again a precondition, not the essence of sex. It is handled not only explicitly, but with utmost elegance and authenticity. Throughout the film, Park points to the sensory experience of his characters, and here focuses intently on the sounds, shapes and tactile sensations of sex. Repetitive motions and random rhythms, slightly awkward cranes of the neck, interruption, distraction, are there in all honesty – but more than coming off true to life, it is deeply erotic. There is no gratuity, just great sensuality.

The Park style is well suited to the task, composing textures of textile, skin and sweat, tastes of blood and saliva, torsions of muscle and moans of pleasure, flowing off the screen and into the nerves. In another co-incidence, I saw Oshima’s Ai No Corrida last week, and where it presented the deep, dark, painful and obsessive world of sex, Park brings us the immediate, sweet, orgasmic soufflé of sex. Guilt plays its part, nagging at carnal desire, prompting the brutal self-flagellation of Sang-hyun. But his stoic struggle makes the fall and her determined part in it all the more exciting. How fine an improvement on the powderpuff lesbianism of Le Fanu and Stoker, the Mormon creep of Meyer.

Thirst is the best film about vampires, guilt or sex to be released this year. It will reward repeat viewing, and until then, I will refrain from drawing final conclusions.

 

Thirst, Dir. Chan-wook Park, Writ. Seo-Gyeong Jeong & Chan-wook Park, Star. Kang-ho Song, Ok-vin Kim, CJ Entertainment, South Korea, 2009
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Written by James P. Campbell

19/10/2009 at 21:14

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

One Response

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  1. I absolutely and completely agree with what you so wonderfully mentioned in the first paragraph. I am a big admirer of Park’s exceptional and versatile yet uniquely identifiable body of work. However, as you, mentioned I too feel he has got his due. For instance his Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance was a far better movie than the kind of response it got from most critics which were lukewarm at best.

    I’m eagerly looking forward to watching his Thirst, and will come back to your terrific deconstruction of the movie once I’ve watched it. Hoping that’ll be sooner rather than later.

    Shubhajit

    21/10/2009 at 03:08


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