Friday, January 15, 2010

Movies: Drink up.

Was any movie more praised on release, only to be more neglected come best-of list time than Thirst, Chan-wook Park's stylish and tormented subversion of the modern strain of vampire romance? That horror bloggers regularly made room on their lists for dreck like the My Bloody Valentine remake or Raimi's smirking phoned-in greatest hit clip collection Drag Me to Hell, while no less a L7 venue like Time Magazine placed Thirst in its top-ten films of the decade list seriously undermines the common blogger accusation that the media mainstream that doesn't get horror.

Though I'm certain it originally received a boost from the critical and popular buzz surrounding the late '08 arrival of Let the Right One In, I now wonder if it wasn't ultimately overshadowed by that film in the minds of fright fans. How many times can you shake up the canon of all time vampire greats in the space of a few months? (This is why the general mediocrity of the Great Zombie Revival is actually the key to its success: A subgenre that reinvents itself in mind-blowing ways every two or three films is going to exhaust the mental bandwidth of its audience as well as sow some discord among people who latch on some particular configuration of the genre elements and decide to become purists. But a certain pandering familiarity, spiced with only slight hints of novelty, neither taxes your audience nor risks alienating them.)

Much of the pleasure of Thirst comes from the development of the film's characters, so I'm going to forego my usual plot summary as I think it would ruin the film for potential viewers. Still, I want to praise Park's strange narrative talents. A comparison to Right One is helpful. While both films focus intensely on a central couple and the impact vampirism has on their relationship, Thirst is an explicitly darker and more relentless film. LtROI played some of its important themes so close to the vest that many viewers convinced themselves that they were watching a relatively uncomplicated love story - the odd impulse to hold Right One up as the anti-Twilight while simultaneously defanging the darkness at its core that genuinely made the film deserve that title was one of the stranger contortions of '08 Blog-Tweet Pro Am season. Thirst is far more excessive and unforgiving. Where Oskar's grim future and Eli predatory nature are only hinted at in the same hesitating and timid way Oskar approaches the world around him, Thirst is built on the same damning and stage-managed logic of Park's revenge thrillers. The fate of the lovers in Thirst is at once surprising and yet never in doubt. When faced with the paradox of God's omniscience and humanity's free will, an ancient theologian once proposed that God was not hip to every teeny, tiny detail of every decision and its consequences, but he always knew the ultimate end of every moral decision because he built the universe with his biases hardwired into it, making the outcome of any decision inevitable. To use an analogy, I don't need to know when you're going to let go of the pen in your hand or where it is going to land to tell that it will fall. While I find this is an utterly unsatisfactory explanation of how free will can exist when all decisions and outcomes are already known, it's a perfect description of what it feels like to watch a Chan-wook Park flick. One never loses the feeling that Park's characters are agents in their world. Their decisions carry an emotional heft and their passions, while operatically grand, seem to genuinely drive them. But you also never lose the sense of Park's malevolent presence: He never pulls their strings, but rather bends the world against them. Park's characters are always free act, but the consequences are ultimately decided by a sinister intelligence beyond their control. In a thriller like Park's Oldboy, the director has a context for this approach: His characters are literally in the grips of meticulous conspiracy. Robbed of that literalism, Park's controlling style could have easily come off as clumsy heavy-handedness. Instead, it expands into something cosmic, brutal, and tragic. Park's priestly main character who loses his faith in an all-powerful, all-good God; in Gods place, Park takes the role of a divine being who is all-powerful, but certainly not all-good. This approach can still lead Park wrong on occasion. For example, Park’s purposefully unsubtle approach to symbolism reminds me of a screenwriting advice Paul Schrader once gave students: "Placing the action of a scene in front of a cross does not make it symbolic."

Park's flick - with its black hole for a heart - would be an insufferable emotional endurance test if he didn't have the visual chops to sell it. I'll admit that I've never much liked Park's thrillers. OldboyThirst strikes me as a more assured work. Perhaps just slightly less gory than the work Park usually produces, it still pulls no punches. More importantly, however, Park's confidence in the face of his own violent visions has increased. Thirst is beautiful even when it is at its most horrible. In one scene, Park captures blood flowing from the priest's mouth, down and through a bone white recorder he's playing. The red streams of blood seem so weighty, so alive, that they evoke a tactile response. The viewer wants to feel them. Long after every film is a 3D spectacle, our grandchild will pity us for our sad little 2D cinema. It will be impossible to explain to them that, before 3D came around, good filmmakers didn't need it to create an immersive experience.

Finally, Ok-bin Kim does a monumental job with the character of Tae-Ju, the distaff half of our lead couple. In a genre notorious for lame and flat female characters, Tae-Ju is such a perfect combination of victim and predator, slave and tyrant that she dominates the screen whenever she appears. Ok-bin Kim manages the trick of turning what would, in lesser hands, appear like breakneck changes in direction and, instead, make them appear as if these features were always part of Tae-Ju, only now we’re seeing them expressed in a frightening and refined form. Her performance was, for my money, the best performance in a horror flick in 2009, perhaps one of the best in any genre. struck me as profoundly uneven. Too often it seemed like Park's mastery of the medium was overwhelmed by the imagery he was constructing. When he was on fire - such as the hammer fight scene - his style framed his visual excess in a way that gave them dramatic value beyond the punch of repulsion. But too often, his style left him, as if the violence he portrayed stunned him in the role of passive spectator.


James said...

I watched this for the second time this weekend - such a great film. Cool review. I think I know what you mean about it being quite detached though - having said that, I still felt genuinely moved during the last scene. I think Thirst improves with each viewing.

derek said...

Well said, Thirst was a beautiful film. Now i need to queue it up again...

Adam Blomquist said...

Hey! It would be on my top ten (probably 2 or 3, possibly #1 if we were talking just horror). Sadly I did not make one, so this is a secret, personal, hypothetical list.

It drove me so nuts that the theatrical release was so limited. I had to wait for DVD (I'd gotten used to seeing Park Chan Wook's films in theaters, seeing both Mr. & Lady Vengeance on film really spoiled me).

I really agree with the maturity you noted. I think structurally this film is amazing and it carries Park's trademark amazing visuals without feeling like style over substance.