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Archive for November, 2010

Thirst (2009)

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Directed by Park Chan wook

I am a big fan of Park Chan wook’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ – with especial love for Old Boy (2003) – so I was avidly looking forward to seeing his take on the vampirism motif in last year’s film Thirst. I finally got round to seeing this yesterday and I adored it. It’s a very different animal to Old Boy in a lot of ways, though – gentler in places, more developed in others – and I think it’s his most accomplished film so far.

Catholic priest Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song, The Host, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) is a man of faith who, seemingly disillusioned with his everyday duties, volunteers himself to travel abroad for a – most likely fatal – medical experiment to help develop a vaccine for a deadly virus. The medical team there question him closely about his motivations, but he is determined. After being infected with, and later succumbing to, the virus, it looks as though Sang-hyeon has expired.

And then – miraculously – Sang-hyeon beings to breathe again, after receiving a final blood transfusion. His recovery prompts wonder in those around him; when he returns to Korea, he is mobbed by people demanding his prayers for their sick and dying loved ones. One day, as he’s attending a children’s birthday party to offer support to a terminally-ill child, a middle-aged neighbour whom he has known all his life, a Mrs Ra (Hae-Sook Kim) comes and bangs on the windows there. She desperately begs for his help, explaining that her only son is suffering from cancer.

A gentle, perhaps lonely figure, the priest agrees to visit Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and renews his acquaintance with the family. He is particularly drawn to Kang-woo’s wife, Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim) – a woman who was taken in by the family as a girl and seemingly moved from her foster mother’s bed into the son’s bed just in order to have somewhere to live and a means to survive. Tae-ju is an unusual girl, quiet, self-contained, but irredeemably discontent: Sang-hyeon sees her fleeing the house at night to run barefoot through the streets, purely to get away from it all. When he stops her one night – and gives her his shoes to protect her feet – it seems he’s beginning to struggle with the pleasures of the flesh…

…And it’s not only sexuality which is leading him astray. Since receiving the transfusion, Sang-hyeon has developed an aversion to sunlight. And, without consuming human blood – which he covertly enjoys at the hospital where he lives/works – the disfiguring symptoms of the virus which nearly killed him return. Sang-hyeon is now pinioned between his growing love for a vulnerable woman who seems to need him, and his desire not to harm others. Like all good tragedies though, the perils of the flesh will take precedence…

This is a long, intricate film with fully fleshed-out characters whose development throughout is believable and interesting. Sang-hyeon’s wish for martyrdom and his subsequent ‘rebirth’ show him moving through all the emotional states he’s thus far avoided as part of his religious faith. His love for Tae-ju feels earnest and warm, and his lust for her acts as a catalyst, pushing him from one way of life fully into another. Tae-ju herself makes an almost polar character shift, from submissive drudge to villainness, and watching her do so provided me with a gamut of responses – from pity, to distrust, to dislike, and back to pity again. There are certainly sympathetic characters in Park Chan-wook’s earlier films, but I don’t think his storylines had this accomplished level of layering, despite being great movies in themselves.

This is a very carnal film, with a great deal of tenderness in its sex scenes and a sense of two people in love. These intimate, erotic moments find themselves upstaged at times by the nasty and the darkly comic, and the film uses dream/hallucinatory sequences which promote that classic Park-Chan wook attractive strangeness. It is always hard to adequately ‘genre’ his films and this is no exception, bringing as it does such a variety of elements into the mix.

The cinematography of this director’s films forms the lion’s share of their appeal for me and Thirst has a similar aesthetic style; from the opening shot, the predominant colour scheme of this film is blue. Only blood-red really interrupts this, and an array of close shots and carefully-choreographed scenes promotes a tangible atmosphere which overarches the film. This is one of the most artistic ‘horror’ films I’ve seen, and it really does do something different with this theme – here, vampirism is the key which transforms people’s lives in a decidedly non-straightforward way. There are no straighforward responses to vampirism here, as it is a catalyst to changes which are as important in themselves.

This is a long, densely-packed film which never felt it was either, and the ambiguity of the ending (is Mrs Ra going to join them?) together with another conflation of tender and grisly really concluded this beautiful movie in just the right way.

Let Me In?

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Hearing that quintissentially British horror studio Hammer were planning on resurrecting themselves after the supreme misfire that was From Beyond the Rave by releasing a remake of Let The Right One In struck me as rather wrongheaded. Everything about it set off warning bells; the re-titling, the American location and cast, and above all else ‘reimagining’ a very recent, and rather wonderful film so soon after its initial success.

However, I was undecided about going to see it. Part of me wanted to support it, and part of me was just nonplussed at the entire thing. The jury was out…

And now the jury is very much back in. I won’t be going to see this film. There are a few reasons for this…

  • The irritating viral marketing campaign. I dread to think how much money has been pumped into this, but every billboard and bus in my city seems to be bedecked with the poster. Many of the key horror websites are also being smothered with advertising which drops down to obscure every damn page I’m trying to read, and I’ve seen numerous television ads too. it’s complete and utter overkill, and – with my cynicism very much swinging into action here – I’m always slightly dubious about films which get given this full-on ad campaign treatment. A lot of the films which have been pushed very hard with adverts have turned out to be weak enough that they really need that push. It could be that this is a perfectly good film but the high-profile campaign has had the opposite effect to that intended on me.
  • Hammer itself (or whoever it is that runs their social networking sites) are furthering this approach with masses of posts and retweets from people smitten with the film. Of course, people who, like me, have their doubts, are being assured of a few facts which just come across as plain wrong.
  • Firstly, Hammer is getting tied up in knots about whether this is a remake, or a reimagining from the same source, or a bit of both. After all, says their spokesperson, all of their early successes were remakes. They basically remade Universal’s Dracula, for instance. Except this is absolute bunk! Hammer were terrified of being sued by Universal, and did what they could to make sure their Dracula differed from those existing films. Anyone who’s seen the Hammer artwork exhibition will have seen the early sketches of Hammer’s Frankenstein monster, and will also have seen that this design had to be changed because of its similarity to Karloff’s monster. Hammer were not remaking Universal.
  • Why is the remake issue relevant? Well, there have been a few quibbles about whether or not Let Me In is a remake of Let The Right One In. Ostensibly, the Hammer release is an interpretation of the original novel and not a simple remake of the Swedish film. However, from the scenes and spoilers I’ve seen, the shots are framed almost identically, although the title has been cropped, the pesky foreign language issue removed and the names Americanised. It sure seems like a remake to me – in the purest sense of the term – using the effective style of the first film version whilst rendering the film more palatable for an English-speaking audience. This issue has come up again and again and Hammer have tried to quell it again and again because other people think exactly the same thing – hence the backpeddaling, and trying to rebrand the studio’s entire remit as  ‘remakes’.
  • Hammer has proudly linked to a verdict from Stephen King which calls Let Me In ‘the best American horror of the year’. As I said above, I regard Hammer as quinissentially British, so it saddens me that this film is considered an American project. There are many fine US studios out there already; I do not think Hammer need to play away from home, and I would like to see them do what they always did best – making films with a palpable feeling of Britishness in their horror. I raised this on Twitter and the assurance I received was, ‘hey, it’s better than being the WORST American movie of the year!’ and more comforting still, ‘What, would you rather we made a fairly good British film than a really good American one?’ How about you make a bloody good British film!? Now that they are working on a ‘retelling’ of The Woman In Black, perhaps I’ll get my wish, although I was somewhat dismayed by this week’s BBC news feature on the studio – where new CEO Simon Oakes declared his intention to move away from things lurid and Gothic. Lurid and Gothic would actually make a pleasant change…

So, I won’t be going to see this one. I just don’t feel that I can support such a fundamental shift away from all the things I love most about the studio (as well as its move across the Atlantic): and no, I do not think Hammer should tread the exact same ground it did in the 60s and 70s, but I would like to see more of these types of elements in horror cinema.  Gothic still works brilliantly on screen and is now underrepresented – what better arena for a studio which originally made its mark with Gothic horror? I will just have to vote with my feet here.