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October 30, 2009

There is a scene in Act 2 of Bach’s St Matthew Passion where Peter is describing his betrayal of Jesus (the “before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” story). This culminates in the aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott (Have mercy, Lord). Peter remembers that Jesus told him he would betray Him, and he weeps:

Have mercy, Lord, for my tears’ sake
Look at me, my heart and eyes weep to Thee bitterly

The piece should begin with a violin solo, growing with the steady introduction of lower strings to conjure up the idea of a weeping Peter, the symbol of all penitent believers.

In Park Chan-Wook’s fabulous new film, Thirst, the aria is played much more simply, ascetically even, by a priest on a wooden flute. This is Sang-hyun (Korean superstar Song Kang-ho) a deeply troubled young man about to come face to face with his doubts and fears in the most horrific way imaginable. Sang-hyun has taken part in a medical trail to find a cure for a particularly nasty leprotic-style disease. After infection he appears to die, but is restored to life and seemingly cured of the ailment.

But he is not cured, not really. A blood unit given to him during his treatment has driven the disease away but at the price of vampirism. As he hides away in his priest’s cell, he wrestles with this new and horrendous spiritual dilemma. He plays the flute, and this most significant of pieces, clearly an expression of how deeply he is feeling, and he coughs…vomiting down the instrument a great gush of blood, pouring through the holes, purging the music. Is this a symbol of his body kicking out the sacrement, that the holy blood is no longer required, and that only the blood of innocent victims will now be taken?

It is a uniquely troubling, thoughtful and memorable image, perfectly at home in a nasty but brilliant take on the vampire story.

Cinéastes aware of Park’s work will not be surprised. For years now the darkest and smartest movies from Korea have been Park’s Vengeance trilogy, most notoriously the wonderful Oldboy. Thirst continues the tradition that those extraordinary pieces began, steadily developing a marvelously black and cynical world hanging off a simple idea.

Here, we have our priest’s struggle, around which grows a story of new lusts and desires; Sang-hyun is compelled to begin a relationship he doesn’t understand with a scheming and manipulative young woman (Tae-joo, played with an alarming feline sensuality by Kim Ok-bin) who needs him to help free her from her marriage.

Deftly, Thirst picks up the strands of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin and Park has great fun turning up the tension to full-on noir gloom and destruction. Be warned, this is a seriously grown up affair, with shockingly intense sex and, once Sang-hyun’s secret is out, some very gruesome and upsetting scenes of face to face violence. There is a scene where the two lovers need to deal with a family group, and it is executed with chilling assurance and sang froid. And amid all the mayhem and choreographed chaos, Sang-hyun in an immaculate white shirt, cuts the image of a perfectly conflicted character.

Thirst is impeccably framed; it looks great from scene one. As with much Asian cinema, there are images and concepts here that are fresh and vital to our eyes, and which leave you thrilled to witness them. Let The Right One In was, and remains, this year’s vampire masterpiece, but Thirst pushes it all the way; despite the horror and the grim commentary on skewed love, they provide forceful and authoritative arguments for what we could have when Art meets Horror, if only we had the nerve to entertain it. The really terrifying thing that’s on show with both films is simple, it’s how bloody good they are; the sad thing, how rare.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 2, 2009 11:52 am

    There’s some really fascinating Korean film coming out, I’ve not actually seen the vengeance trilogy yet which is a real oversight on my part. I’ll have to add this to that list clearly.

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