20 November 2009

BAKJWI / THIRST (Dir. Park Chan-Wook, 2009, South Korea) - Strangers in the night

Song Kang-ho is one of South Korea's most popular film stars.

Is Park Chan-wook an iconoclast or is he simply aspiring to be the next Tarantino? That was the question I kept coming back to whilst watching his latest film. Or perhaps it is wrong to equate him with Tarantino when he surely is a film maker who follows more in the vein of someone like Shohei Imamura; provocative, controversial and stylistically prescient. Actually, the imagery of Seijun Suzuki in films such as ‘Branded to kill’ and ‘Tokyo Drifter’ also come to mind when trying to trace a cinematic linage through the poster boy of Hallyu cinema. The other thing about Park Chan-wook is that his films don’t seem to be the event that they once were. Gone is the fanfare and publicity that came with his vengeance triptych. Though still celebrated at film festivals (‘Thirst’ predictably went down the traditional Cannes route before attracting critical acclaim) ‘Thirst’ arrived at UK cinemas almost under the radar, as if distributors were smuggling in a Trojan horse of sorts.

With all his films one can find very little to criticise in terms of technical achievements as his grasp of camerawork surpasses much of mainstream American cinema, which is often trying to imitate him. However, I was slightly disappointed with his allegorical retelling of the vampire myth. A note about vampires; their infiltration of popular culture in the form of the troubled youth ‘Twilight’ movie franchise and American imports like ‘True Blood’ has emerged as a response to the gloomy recession. If the disillusionment of the seventies is anything to go by then maybe we should prepare ourselves for a cinematic renaissance. Somehow that doesn’t seem likely as an aspiration when considering how the latest bombastic high concept juggernaut ‘2012’ (starring John Cusack?!) has only just triggered a renewed interest in the dormant disaster movie genre that plagued the mid nineties.
'This film was originally called "The Bat" to convey a sense of horror - after all, it is about vampires. But it is also more than that. It is about passion and a love triangle. I feel that it is unique because it is not just a thriller, and not merely a horror film, but an illicit love story as well.'
Park Chan-wook, Director’s Statement
http://www.haf.org.hk/haf/pdf/project08/se23.pdf

‘An illicit love story’ is perhaps one way of reading a film that wraps itself in the conventions of the vampire film. Park Chan-wook says it was Hitchcock’s film ‘Vertigo’ that got him interested in film making, providing a rich starting point in terms of attempting to trace intertextual links and the influence on wider auteur concerns. This idea of metaphysical possession so often repeated in the Vampire myth is not unlike Scottie’s (James Stewart) attempts to reconstruct the vision of Madeleine that he obsesses over. This being Park Chan-wook, the love story broaches a taboo – the relationship between a priest and a young woman is eroticised and played out like an operatic melodrama whilst the film’s strangely predictable ending is lifted from Del Toro’s ‘Blade II’ sequel. I’m not sure if Park Chan-wook made this film purely out of reaction to some of his long time critics who felt he was anti-genre. By taking on the most universal of genres, it is hard not to see why the film has been one of the biggest hits at the Korean box office this year. However, closer interrogation reveals something insidiously clinical about the construction of Park Chan-wook’s films which makes many of his characters quite emotionless and very difficult to identify with – one becomes distanced very easily and adopts an observational spectator position. With ‘Thirst’, empty surfaces prevail and one is left deliberating over the declining critical status of Park Chan-wook as an auteur. However, the film did give us one of the best film posters of the year:

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