Monday, October 19, 2009
Decades of fancifully lousy representations have given me cause to be trepidatious when walking into a vampire movie. Thirst by Park Chan-Wook was no exception. My husband and I had a double date with a comedy rapper and a Russian-born psych student (not relevant to the review; just had to put that out there) and we all arrived early to guarantee good seats. Everyone else's expectations were high, which meant I was nervous. I love Park's work. But vampires?
As put off as I am by traditional vampires, I'm even more apprehensive of "reimaginings" of the vampire mythos. (Y'all know that of which I speak. coughglittercough) I thought maybe we'd be treated to a depiction of Korea's historical equivalent of the European vampire, but was pleasantly surprised to learn that Thirst's vampires are about as conventionally western as they come: night-dwelling, super-strong, immortal, black-bedecked bloodsuckers, obsessed with Christian images and superstitions and the struggle between good and evil. It's interesting to see this faithful representation of western myth cast through the lens of an Asian culture. It strikes me that Europe's vampire, the evil spirit of the dead that comes by night to feast upon the blood of the living, turning to ash at the touch of sunlight, fits in perfectly with the majority of Asian lores, which are saturated with malicious revenants bound by quirky, complex rules. Our Draculas and Nosferatus would fit in perfectly over there.
As I expected from Park, every shot is crafted conscientiously and individually, paying attention to the entire toolbox available to cinematographers but somehow never feeling overly artsy or conspicuous, always in service of telling the story rather than distracting the audience with flashy visuals. American directors ought to be ashamed of themselves; with a few remarkable exceptions, cinematography has become a sleepy game of Follow the Leader, made up of cut corners and obvious answers intended to keep the production short and cheap. And when it's not that, when it's designed to impress, the poor audience is bludgeoned with sweeping (typically artificial) vistas, junky color correction and hamfisted, "Look how dramatic" shots. Park allows his environments to be natural and his scope is mostly kept to the characters' awarenesses. The shot style often reflects their emotions.
Park's paramount Vengeance trilogy (full disclosure: I've only seen two of them) thrives on black and bitter peripeteias that make you cry "Mercy!" The same notes are struck in Thirst, though lightly, and the supernatural subject matter in combination with a heightened dark comedy angle make the whole experience less realist and, thus, far less harrowing than those films. Still, the story twists in a dozen little directions from act to act, so the predictability factor is zero.
It's probably fair to say that my favorite things about Thirst are the non-vampire things. (And that's a lot; the story is largely about humanity and its motions.) I am not converted, I still expect vampire movies to suck, but I have had a bit of a revelation. Between this and Let the Right One In, I see that even subgenres I've written off as foolishly gothic can come calling in the form of a movie I love, provided the right director is molding it.
I have learned to trust Park absolutely. He has my blessing to adapt for screen stories that I would otherwise have nothing but disdain for, and I'll be first in line. Perhaps he could try a sports legend biopic next. I'll place myself in his fatherly care.