[Review] ‘Thirst’ charts a new course for vampire films

By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: April 27, 2009

“Thirst,” directed by Park Chan-wook, is deeply provocative in various aspects. But those who expect the extreme cinematic pyrotechnics seen in “Oldboy” might be only partially satisfied. Given that Park’s latest vampire tale has made it to the prestigious competition section in the forthcoming Cannes film festival next month, it is natural that public expectations are fairly high.

As with Park’s other films, however, “Thirst” is not for a mainstream viewer. The film graphically illustrates human thirst in the form of sex, guilt and death — a merciless concoction that may shock audiences.

The film starts off in a serene mood. A down-to-earth yet bored priest Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) routinely witnesses patient deaths in a hospital. He volunteers for a secret project abroad, a medical experiment that might lead to his death. Undaunted, he flies off to the lab, gets an injection of blood, and things begin to fall apart in an utterly unexpected way.

When he wakes up, Sang-hyun realizes that he’s the only survivor of the lab experiment. What’s more, he has transformed into a vampire who needs to drink human blood to stay alive.

Thankfully, he is always near a source of fresh blood — hospital. In the name of performing Catholic rituals for sick patients, he manages to find and steals blood from patients in a vegetative state and, more conveniently, hospital refrigerators where blood packs are aplenty.

So far, so good. The real challenge arises when he joins a weekly Majong game at his friend’s house. It does not take long before Sang-hyun notices sexual advances from his friend’s wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), a femme fatal armed with gimmicks and yearnings.

It is easy to forecast bloody results when Sang-hyun gets physically entangled with Tae-ju. What’s surprising is the filmmaker’s resolve to spare no blood to describe the unfortunate priest-turned-vampire’s ever-growing thirst for satisfaction.

Sang-hyun, as a priest, feels a sense of guilt and helplessness about his transformation throughout the film. His job is to save souls, but his own soul is now in the hands of an inner vampire. To maintain his life, he has no other choice but to go out and steal some blood, either from living targets or from the hospital’s blood storage.

This dilemma gets amplified when Sang-hyun loses grip on his own vampire blood and a Korean vampire network begins to form. The ultimate question for Sang-hyun is whether he will stop the spread of lethal blood even at the cost of his own life, and the film’s second half is duly devoted to portraying Sang-hyun’s painful efforts to turn things around.

Director Park wisely interrupts the unbridled blood-sucking drama by offering several dialogues where Sang-hyun delivers comic lines, as if he is not really serious about what he’s talking about. Such humor is typical of Park, who seems to want audiences not to take the drama too seriously.

Before the press preview, critics and reporters were given hints about extreme nudity concerning the heroine, Kim Ok-vin. The hints were not totally misguided, but the real show-stopper came from Song Kang-ho’s explicit nudity at a crucial scene.

Whether Song’s nudity should have been necessary is debatable. What’s certain, however, is that Song’s performance in “Thirst” is respectable in every aspect. He brings to life a Korean priest who struggles to deal with a sudden change in fate. Song’s facial and body expressions are also expertly performed to reflect the character’s angst, self-doubt and uncontrollable desires.

Kim Ok-vin, a rookie in Korean cinema, equally tops expectations. Kim acts up the crucial character who infuses a much-needed toxic dose of vitality and viciousness to the vampire saga.

Despite the first-class acting by the two main characters, “Thirst” may not be in the same league as “Oldboy” in terms of extreme visuals and thematic boldness. But the film will surely satisfy the thirst of those wanting a ruthless blood-sucking vampire fare.

“Thirst,” distributed by CJ Entertainment, was released nationwide on April 30.

[Review] Lee Myung-se’s psychodrama ‘M’ big on the glitzy visuals

By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: October 19, 2007

 

Lee Myung-se`s latest psychodrama “M” got a lot of attention at the Pusan International Film Festival which ended on Friday, partly because there were only a handful of “new” Korean films making their formal debuts. Another, more important reason was that “M” features top-rated stars such as Gang Dong-won.

He is a heartthrob in Korea, and director Lee, who became famous for his stylized features like “Nowhere to Hide” and “Duelist.” The two were a big draw during a press preview held in Seoul on Tuesday.

The film revolves around the experience of a writer of a bestseller, Min-woo (played by Gang), and his dreamy journey into the past where he attempts to reunite with his first love, whose existence is shrouded in mystery.

Min-woo has a bad case of writer`s block; to break out of this artistic stalemate, he immerses himself in flashbacks involving his first love, Mi-mi (Lee Yeon-hee). But this psychological quest involves several obstacles, one of which is the suspicion of his current girlfriend Eun-hye (Gong Hyo-jin).

But the plot itself might not help the audiences grasp what the movie tries to achieve, largely because director Lee uses plenty of visual effects, complex (and confusing) dream sequences, and gliding camerawork.

At the news conference following the press preview, director Lee said that this movie is based on his earlier screenplay “Milyoung,” which he had written in 2000. “The original script was inspired by one of the dreams I had, and, by the way, I almost always have a major dream around the New Year`s Day. In that dream, I met the novelist Choi In-ho, and we talked about what the dream really means,” he explained.

In the dream about dreams, Lee concluded that dreams provide a channel through which the living and the dead communicate; this is a theme that informs the main plot of “M.” Asked about the rich visual effects, director Lee said he wanted to describe the darkness in a way that highlights its shining light. “Some might ask how darkness can shine at all, but, on a closer look at the darkness, we can feel the layers of darkness and its intricate depth,” he said.

The emphasis on darkness is also linked with the dreamy state, or a moment before one wakes up to the bright light, Lee added.

Gang Dong-won, meanwhile, said that he was steadily encouraged by the filmmaker to keep an open mind about the story and his performing, depending on the nature of a specific scene. Gang, who worked with Lee in his previous feature, “Duelist,” said he felt that he was experimenting with his own acting talent a lot during the production.

“There`s a rumor about director Lee, concerning his strict style in the shooting sessions, but I think he`s very kind and gentle, because I`ve never seen him lose his temper. Never. Director Lee is very persistent in getting things right, getting things done, but once actors open up their hearts, and focus on acting, he`s quite a kindhearted person,” Gang said.

As with “Duelist,” Lee`s latest film is filled with startling visual effects, but critics and audiences did not react positively to “Duelist.” People were disappointed with the poor storytelling. This raises the possibility of a not-so-impressive reaction to “M” at the box office.

However, director Lee seemed unfazed by such a prospect. “Every director cares about the audience and their reception of his films, but the relationship between directors and audiences is similar to the act of writing a love letter. Even though the box-office scores are not good, I will continue to write my love letter to my audiences, and I believe a true feeling will be eventually delivered,” Lee said.

[Review] ‘Punch Lady’ throws high kicks

By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: October 17, 2007

 

Spousal abuse is not a new cinematic theme, but “Punch Lady” takes a fresh approach to the tricky issue by portraying the psychological trajectory of a battered Korean woman. The question is whether the likely climax — whatever triumph the victim will manage to get — meets viewers’ expectations in a swift manner, just like the bullet-speed punch of a professional fighter.

After all, this movie, the debut feature by Kang Hyo-jin, involves a professional K1 fighter, Ju-chang (Park Sang-woo), and his timid, shy, self-conscious 36-year-old wife Ha-eun (Do Ji-won). The opening is telling: the couple is engaged in a K-1 fight in the living room, with all the vicious tricks fully deployed … well, at least by the seemingly crazy husband. What is hard to understand, especially when the film is set in the 2000s, is why Ha-eun still sticks around this monstrous wife-beater.

The level of violence is almost unbearable. We see Ha-eun virtually flying over into the corner of the kitchen, with saucers and spoons scattered around. Bruises are all over her face and body, reflecting her tortuous daily routine. But, strangely, there’s nobody who wants to report this extreme domestic violence to the police.

There is one police report, though. When Ju-chang is about to hit his (rightly) rebellious daughter for no apparent reason, Ha-eun taps into her motherly instinct and hits him on the head from behind. Thanks to the ‘victimized’ husband’s formal complaint to authorities, Ha-eun is put behind bars. Strange as it is, nobody, including any police officers, cares about how such an incident happened in the first place; people pay little attention to all the apparent signs of a battered wife.

Defying logic, in a sense, is inevitable. The ultimate destination of the movie is a final showdown between the invincible husband and the suffering wife. So, details about domestic violence remain unexplained. For instance, there is no explanation about why Ju-chang is habitually beats up his wife, even though he almost always knocks down his counterparts on the K1 fighter stage, thus satisfying, at least partly, his animalistic instinct for destruction and victory.

Instead of offering more credible details, director Kang introduces a cinematic momentum that lacks, again, plausibility. It turns out that Ha-eun used to date a decent, kindhearted man. Some flashback scenes show that he really cares about Ha-eun, but she turns down his courtship attempts, without offering any reason. This is puzzling. If they were in love, and if she had to leave him somehow, even a small hint might come in handy, but the plot ignores this gaping hole, and chugs along to the expected turn where Ha-eun decides to take a new course in her life.

A tragic incident involving her old boyfriend prompts Ha-eun to rethink her miserable life, and she gets ready to confront her husband in a way that she never imagined in her lifetime — a live match on the K1 stage.

Challenged publicly by a feeble wife, Ju-chang shows off his confidence by announcing that he will use his right hand only in this match. A big disadvantage if he’s fighting a regular K1 fighter who has steeled himself through techniques from taekwondo, karate, kickboxing and traditional boxing. Not so with a housewife who knows nothing about such martial arts. What Ha-eun knows is that, since she has been beaten for so long, her husband’s punches are terribly lethal.

Despite the technical flaws and problems in the storytelling, Do Ji-won’s passionate performance deserves some credit. She has apparently practiced a lot — kicking and running — and her hard training adds much-needed sparks when the movie finally rushes toward its climax. And the climax might have been more satisfying if the film were a tad shorter than its exhausting 121-minute running time.