Thirst Preview + Q&A
5th October 2009
Curzon Cinema, Soho, London

Being a big fan of Park Chan Wook’s  Vengeance Trilogy, I was definitely excited and keen to see ‘Thirst’ (박쥐;Bakjwi)) his newest release that won the Jury prize at Cannes this year. The story is of Sang Hyun (Song Kang-ho) a priest who willing undergoes a medical experiment to help find a cure for a virus. The vaccine doesn’t work and he is infected himself, but makes a miraculous recovery that draws in parishioners for prayer and healing. Among these is an old childhood friend suffering from cancer who invites him to join his wife Tae-Ju (Kim Ok-Bin), mother and friends in their weekly game of Mah-jongg. Its during this game he has a connection with Tae-Ju and later has a relapse, waking up a very different kind of being.

Review

When the Park Chan Wook introduced the film, before having his dinner, he said he always appreciated UK audiences the most as we seem to be the only ones who actually understand the humour in the situations he portrays. This held true during the showing that, interspersed between the wincing, a lot of guilty laughter could be heard at the scenes and situations that occur during the film. I could see Philip wincing a lot from the corner of my eye at scenes that didn’t bother me in the least – which means that I have missed my calling as a trauma specialist or, more likely, that I am a little de-sensitised to the violence and darkness in Korean movies of this genre.

‘Thirst’ is a very powerful movie with strong imagery and ideas about faith, desires and temptation and its no small coincidence that it’s TaeJu that provides the catalyst for the priest’s relapse and then fall into temptation. Like a modern day telling of the story of Genesis it has the behaviour and temptations of a woman at its heart and the desire for knowledge that is forbidden. Its definitely a film I will watch again to take in more of the more complex ideas it covers, and films that have inspired it and then perhaps I will write a more in depth article on my perceptions of what has been portrayed. Its definitely worth going to see, just remember to laugh even if you are wincing. The violence and explicit nature are not done gratuitously, but a necessary part of portraying the world in which we live that is just as dark sometimes and just as intense.

The use of light, blood, nature, night and clothing is also very detailed and well thought out.

Cast

I really like the actress Kim Ok-Bin in the roles I have seen her in so far (Voices, Over the Rainbow). Known for being outspoken and unpretentious, I also think she has a depth to her acting that shows she will be one of the top stars in the future, particularly if she continues to select roles like she does. She manages to transform well with each role, so it takes a while for me to place where I have seen her before and thus preventing any preconception to the character she plays. .  In ‘Thirst’ she really shines as the manipulative and dark-souled Tae-Ju, trapped by her life in servitude to the people who took her in and then by the relationship with Sang Hyun.

Song Kang-Ho (Memories of Murder, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, The Host) is one of my favourite Korean actors and is, as always, very watchable and carries the role of a troubled priest very well. He too likes to pick a variety of roles, so even though his face is far easier to recognise, he does well at distinguishing the characters he plays rather than being a lazy typecast. Indeed this is the third film that he stars in that is directed by Park Chan Wook.

The rest of the cast too were well chosen, particularly that there was a realistic feel to it with the inclusion of a Filipina actress as one of the card player’s friends, an aspect of Korean life that is not often addressed in modern media. TaeJu’s mother-in-law gives a masterful performance, particularly in the second half of the film, and the husband suitably brash, and yet pathetic at the same time.

Q&A

The Q&A was only a half hour long, a real shame, and the staff at the Curzon were quick to hustle him out, probably aware of the number of people wanting an autograph or a picture. The host a film reviewer of ‘The Times’ started off the proceedings.

Q: I know it’s a kind of obvious question, and I’m sure you’ve heard it a lot before, but this was 10 years in the gestation, this project, could you tell us a little bit about how it came about?

A: It took 10 years to be a film, but it doesn’t mean I was working on this film 10 years in a row. Spending all night, one night,  10 years ago I had made up a certain story, to be exact rather, than a story it was a kind of sketch composed of two sequences and the first was of how a priest who becomes a vampire and the second was how the priest tuned a women into vampire. I had no idea how they would meet and who she is – I had no information about that.
I had then put this story straight into a drawer for a few years and by chance I read the French novel ‘Therese Raquin’ [Zola]. When I read the novel, the story in the novel that could place into my film. So it was a fusion of my original idea I had come up with 10 years ago and the novel that was the idea that was the kick off for ‘Thirst’.

Q: This may be stating the obvious but it’s a very funny film, we know that your films have funny moments in them, but this is a rollicking roller coaster of laughs from start to finish – where did that come from?

A: Perhaps maybe I should mention about my personality first. I can’t really stand a long pause of seriousness or fear or sorrow so I really like to break that kind of moment with my humour. The humour I like is kind of mixture with other emotion, its not necessarily positive I must say be more negative emotions something like fear or sorrow or pain even, that kind of order, mixture of emotion, that kind of thing combined, that kind of humour I find it funny.
Well as you seen the film the character is a Roman Catholic priest and when he turn into a vampire he should have been given up his religious or morality for example, but he wanted to keep everything within himself. He felt including his new identity as vampire and that kind of conflict moment you could find humour.
Most important character of the film must be origin of tragedy and origin of humour is from the same place. What I mean by that is – the main characters notion as a priest and he cant keep that kind of…his morality, he may become a vampire but underneath he is troubled between his new identity, that kind of dilemma, that kind of humour you can find in humorous way.

Q: One thing I find is that the films seems incredibly dense, I’ve seen it twice already and you almost have to see it twice to get a handle on what happening thematically throughout it, but one thing coming back and keep referring to is this idea of the Catholic priest embracing vampirism and wondering maybe is there any sort of personal or biographical aspect of it? [audience laughter] The Catholicism more than the vampirism!

A:  He brought up as a Catholic and when he was in high school there was a priest church near his town that visit his family and saying that Chan-Wook will be great priest , it could be official in the future and what he think about that, and at that moment he gave up going to church. [audience laughter] It is another kind of fear that you can’t marry and you have to live as alone.
After that moment he started the curious about the life of a priest, the notion of a priest so he also felt that give him idea what kind of private life that priest will have, and what kind of temptation and desire they try to avoid.
When he went to Mass, as you know, a priest is a vocation which involve drinking wine which represented the blood of Christ during the mass, and also they also have the bread represent the flesh of Christ and he, when he was really young, he was… he had some fear that the drinking wine which was represent of blood which kind of remind him of vampirism.
For him, priest that become vampire is kind of natural idea for him because of that experience and rather than the wine being a symbol of Christ that this priest has to drink real blood and also the blood was not for redemption of humanity but as food for the priest himself that kind of idea captured him for ‘Thirst’

The questions were then taken from the audience.

Q: The behaviour of the woman in the film is very different from the behaviour of the priest because she has no faith, therefore she doesn’t care about killing people which is something the priest restrains from. In the film, this behaviour is clearly regretted and its presented as bad as wrong, is that a way for the director to say that it is wrong not to have faith?

It wasn’t my idea to suggest to you whether its good to have a religion or not, but you can see clearly to contrast of the character. For example the priest, he is a very pitiful character because he couldn’t give up the religious, but in contrast, the TaeJu, the female character, she clearly give up the morality so she feel a lot more freedom and she even enjoying murder and killing people so you can see what could be different choice, what could be consequences, for different people and consequences of that from the two characters.
The priest character actually reflects my real personality in a lot of ways, but you can see he is kind of pathetic or he is very…he is troubling to make a choice because he cannot give up both sides but rather than TaeJu for myself I feel more I feel I want to be more side for him but I think its more hero in a way for him because its more hero.

Q: Each film you seem to have a fairly innocent person who inadvertently is caused to do pretty horrendous acts and things and that happens in  ‘Old Boy’ ‘I’m a Cyborg’ and ‘Thirst’ that many innocent people are driven to do horrendous things. Is there a reason you keep going back to this theme, is it a repeated convention you have in your films?

A: That kind of story is what I like, normal innocent people one day they experience horrendous accident and simply they might experience death in symbolic way – daughter is kidnapped or go to jail for 15 year and in that case after they die in symbolic way they transform to watching the process of transformation of the character is a very interesting thing.

Q: There seems to be a lot of vampires in pop culture now like in TV, in movies and what drew you to the subject and also, my little sister wanted to know if you liked ‘Twilight’?

Park Chan Wook  gave a thoughtful ‘hmmm’ which made the audience laugh.

A: When I first come up with the idea of ‘Thirst’ it was 10 years ago, so I wasn’t aware of much vampire thing in public, especially at this moment. For example ‘True Blood’ he got lots of questions about it when he goes to the US press conference, but he was really busy to making ‘Thirst’ he hadn’t seen any kind of vampire film. He hasn’t even seen ‘Let the Right One in’ yet and the answer for the second one – ‘Twilight’ – his daughter loves it!

“Very political” the host commented to much laughter.

Q: I always wondered at the end of ‘Old Boy’, Mido says ‘saranghaeyo ajusshi’ that doesn’t really translate so well into English, the sentiment doesn’t really carry into English. I just wondered if you were ever worried that your films were ever lost in translation or actually excited you that films had a life of their own, outside of what you intended?

At this point I was asked to not record, so the following is no longer a transcript but from my notes. A few details are hazy as I was distracted by an baseless accusation I had not stopped recording and I had to wave my mp3 player at the usher to show the light was off.

The director spoke about how in Korea, as anyone studying any Korean will know, that name are not often used unless evry close with someone. Ajusshi(mister) is a respectful term, but also the first syllable is the same as appa (father) so until she says the second syllable the audience do not know if she will say one term or the other. That’s what he intended. Sometimes you are right, sometimes things are lost in translation, sometimes though things get funnier because of the translation. Watching in English can give another angle to things.

Q: was ‘Ravenous’ an influence at all?

A: he had not heard of the film no seen it

Q: What films have influenced ‘Thirst’

A: Maybe inspire is too big a word. He has not been inspired by others. ‘Possession’ by Andrej Zulawski – its more of a homage to this film. Kim Ok-Bin watched the film to gain insight and interpret her character and they both loved Isabelle Adjani in that movie. In one sequence the dress Ok-Bin wears is the same blue dress as Adjani in ‘Possession’

Other interesting links:

Interview with Park Chan Wook on soompi.com:  http://www.soompi.com/content/92659