Vampires have never been so much in vogue – a way for storytellers to talk about morality and sexuality, on a dramatic playing field where the stakes are all about survival. So move over Twilight and True Blood -- the latest entry into canon of bloodsucker legend and lore is Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, which comes out Friday, July 31.
Inspired by Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin and willing to masterfully, playfully sink its fangs into ideas that few horror flicks have delved into, Thirst follows the travels and travails of Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho of The Host), a priest who works at a hospital and volunteers as a human guinea pig in a hush-hush vaccine development project in Africa. The blood transfusion that miraculously saves his life has also transformed him into a vampire, and in his struggle to cope with his new blood-thirsty existence – which Park treats with wit, whimsy and solemnity -- Sang-hyun finds an unexpected compatriot: Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), the downtrodden wife of a friend. Temptations -- and the Seven Deadly Sins – lurk around every street corner in this love story -- and lust story.
I got a chance to speak with Park via his translator during his recent press stop in San Francisco. Thoughtful, attentive and clad all in black, the director-writer-producer saw Thirst take home the Jury Prize at this spring’s Cannes International Film Festival (in 2004, he won the Grand Prix award at Cannes for Old Boy). Next up, he dons his producer cap for The Host director Bong Joon-ho’s next project.
Q: Thirst explores so many new sides of the vampire film. What made you wanted to do vampire film -- or did you start with the idea of doing a film based on Therese Raquin first?
PC: I actually started out with the idea of the Catholic priest. I wanted to make a film about a priest and deal with his moral downfall. As a supporting device, I came up with vampirism. And after coming up with that, I was looking for a partner in crime, a partner who helps the priest with this moral downfall. And in my search, I came up with Therese Raquin.
Q: It seems like the timing is incredible in terms of the film’s release. What do you think of the current fascination with vampires? I’m not sure if it’s as strong in Korea, but in the states, vampires seem to be hitting a major chord with people. Why do you think that’s so?
PC: I haven’t seen Twilight or True Blood, so I’m not sure what it is with the fascination with vampires at the moment.
I’m not even sure if this is even good timing for Thirst to come out, in this environment. If you look at from the positive perspective, your perspective, there’s a great boom for vampire films, and it could work for the movie. But on the other hand, you could have people ask, “Is this another vampire film? We’ve had enough.” So I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or bad thing.
Q: Another fascinating aspect of the film delves into Christianity and its deep ties to Korean culture. What do you think the movie is saying about that idea? Did you have any ideas you wanted to explore in relation to that?
PC: [Sighs] I think that this isn’t a film that specifically deals with the current state of Korea or even if it describes Korea at the moment.
Rather, I took this idea of Catholicism, in a broader sense, and questioned it as it’s found in Korea. It’s much like vampirism, a Western concept. It has come from outside of Korean culture and made its way into Korean culture.
This explains other ideas dealt with in the film, where you have this blood entering Sang-hyun, the priest’s body, and turning him into a vampire. Or the virus that enters into the body and causes disease.
Again, this idea of some external element coming into an internal environment is repeated when you see Sang-hyun entering into this very close-knit, very close family of three and causes this family to break up. He’s the external element coming into this internal environment and causing changes.
Q: So would you say Thirst comments on colonialism or imperialism?
PC: I thought at one point that you can view this film from that perspective. But it’s a more complex issue than that -- it’s slightly more complicated than simply saying this is a criticism of imperialism or colonialism.
For example, in the film, the virus causes disease for people who come from the outside. The virus doesn’t infect the native African people. Rather it affects those people that have come from the outside. So in a way, this is actually a virus that drives away people who have come from the outside.
On the other hand, this blood that is transfused into Sang-hyun -- we don’t know who it comes from or where it comes from. So rather than looking at this film from the perspective of colonialism or imperialism, I’d like the film to be looked at on a more existential level.
Compare it to how we don’t really know what determines our identity. Or what makes up our identity. Or how it is changed. In a similar sense, there are these external elements, and we’re trying to find out where they are from.
Q: Another aspect of the film that I thought was amazing was the performance by Kim Ok-vin and its emotional (and physical) nakedness. She almost eclipses Song Kang-ho. How did you draw that performance from her?
PC: When it comes to Song Kang-ho, he’s, of course, probably the greatest actor in the history of Korean cinema, who everyone recognizes. So the fact that he does a great job playing this character is not surprising news to anybody.
However with Kim Ok-vin’s performance, everybody was surprised -- herself, her acting partners, audiences. We’re all proud of her performance.
You can’t say she’s a newcomer because she’s done films before, but her roles in those films didn’t jump out and grab your attention either. I wasn’t sure she’d be a good fit for the character but having gone through lots of discussions with her and having had drinks with her and talking to her about her personal life and also the process, I came to be sure that she was the right person for the role.
And also when it came to these bed scenes, I had a storyboard that in great detail expressed what was to be acted. My usual process is to do a thorough storyboard from the start, but I paid more attention to these bed scenes, to give the actor an exact idea of what was to come.
I also think that in order to get that great performance there were two elements. The first -- the reason why I liked Kim Ok-vin for the role -- was her hand. Traditionally, in Korea, a beauty would have small hands that are slightly clubby and very fine and delicate. That is considered the hand of a beauty, whereas Kim Ok-vin’s hands were very rough and looked almost like a man’s hand. And you notice the fact she had these long, slender fingers that would able to grab the male character -- you had the feeling, this was a femme fatale.
Secondly, the reason why this young woman who probably doesn’t have as much experience as her compatriots, is so good can be largely attributed to how Song Kang-ho, as her acting partner, was able to give her the feeling that she was safe in this film.
Q: The cinematography, the shifts in color palette, and the look of the film intrigue me. For instance, the moment when one character is killed on a lake is very reminiscent of A Place in the Sun. Your interest in the history of cinema seems very foregrounded in your other films as well. What were you trying to do with the look and feel of Thirst?
PC: Well, my aim is not to have my audience reminded of the history of film or other films, but due to my own limited capabilities, I don’t always succeed in creating perfectly unique shots. When it comes to A Place in the Sun, which you mention, I vaguely remember seeing it on TV when he was young, but that’s the first time I’ve heard a mention of the relationship between that scene and the movie.
In terms of composition, I always try to closely follow the character and stay close to the changes in the character’s emotion. So my camera movement and angle and composition will closely follow that and create that intimacy between the audience and the character.
But at one point, I betray this intimate relationship between the audience and character and cut the audience completely off. I jumped out of the drama and had my camera view the character more accurately and with a hint of coldness, putting them in a more objective light. I try to have this push and pull in the relationship between the audience and the character.
Q: In developing the story, did you end up resisting the need to hew closely to Therese Raquin? There’s a freewheeling quality to the story -- as if anything can happen.
PC: It depends on who’s looking at the film, depending on their perspective they might say, “He’s taken a lot of elements from Therese Raquin -- or he hasn’t taken many elements at all.
But the most attractive character from the novel and the character I liked the most was the mother-in-law [Madame Ra, played y Kim Hae-sook]. I found her more attractive than the main characters.
The interesting thing to note here is that Mrs. Ra, the mother-in-law, becomes enormously interesting, not when she has lots of things to say or when she’s doing a lot of bad things, but the moment she becomes paralyzed and she can’t do anything at all. For her to not do anything but to have this pair of observing eyes…
Thirst opens Friday, July 31, at Bridge Theatre, 3010 Geary Blvd., SF. (415) 267-4893. For showtimes and more information, go to landmarktheatres.com.