No other film this summer has made me so thrilled to be in a theater as Park Chan-wook’s Thirst. I say this as a confession–because a morally aware adult with responsible tastes cannot excuse, let alone indulge, the feral pleasures set loose in this movie. At least I have company in my guilt. One of the film’s two main protagonists feels as awful as I do about participating in the experience. The other has the time of her life, or undeath.
Recognized by scholarly viewers as a modern-dress Korean adaptation of Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin–whatever–Thirst is in fact many things: a tale of adultery and murder, a drama of Catholic spirituality, a thriller about medical science gone awry, a satire on provincial life (the hours clacked away in mah-jongg games, the years sighed out in claustrophobic shops and their upstairs apartments). But Thirst is always and above all a vampire movie, and as such it provides the best opportunity yet for the director of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance to express his lavish, grotesque and gleeful talent for bloodletting.
The star of this delirium is Song Kang-ho, who was so delightfully loose-jointed when playing the bleached-blond hero-despite-himself of Bong Joon-ho’s The Host but here moves initially with heavy care, as if each gesture cost him pain from an inner wound. As Sang-hyun, a young hospital chaplain, he suffers from the death all around him, from the apparent futility of his efforts to aid the dying and from a spirit of renunciation that is perhaps too complete. Aspiring to martyrdom–or is it suicide?–Sang-hyun volunteers to be a research patient in an African clinic, where doctors are seeking a cure for a deadly virus that (strangely enough) infects only missionaries. He awaits the agony in his cell, playing Bach’s “Ich habe genug” on the recorder; breaks out in pustules; hemorrhages profusely; and then dies on the operating table while receiving a blood transfusion–only to revive.
Still swaddled in bandages to hide the pustules, so he looks more like the Invisible Man than a vampire, Sang-hyun returns to Korea and resumes his hospital duties, now with the additional shame of being popularly thought to be a saint whose prayers have special efficacy. No one has ever survived the virus. How he survived it, and on what terms, does not become clear to him until the full moon, when he is suddenly overcome by a wash of red on the screen, the echoes of energetic copulation on the soundtrack and a flickering montage of wildlife imagery, intercut with pictures of a bandaged Jesus on the cross. By the time the fit passes, Sang-hyun understands that his body cries out for blood–a few swigs of which do wonders for that embarrassing skin problem.
One deeply carnal craving is bad enough for a priest with a perpetually heavy conscience. But a desire even worse than blood lust comes over Sang-hyun next, when chance reintroduces him to an old grammar school acquaintance–a scrawny, grinning, snot-nosed mama’s boy–and the man’s apparently abject wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). She is gorgeous, in a delicate-featured yet pouty way–and also glum, fragile, put-upon and somnambulistic, all of which goes right to Sang-hyun’s heart. He doesn’t realize that Tae-ju’s sleepwalking is actually a conscious ritual of escape, carried out regularly after she practices the best angle for shoving scissors into her husband’s snoring mouth. Sang-hyun knows only that Tae-ju, like him, is a lonely creature of the night. He sees nothing wrong with rescuing her (as he imagines it) on one of her nocturnal forays, lifting her off the pavement with his more-than-human strength, then lowering her bare feet into the protection of his worn-out shoes. Charity covers the first physical contact. The contact after that won’t be covered at all.
New love, as everyone knows, often brings people shock as well as joy–but rarely a shock so indelible as the one that Chan-wook now puts on the screen, when Tae-ju finds her priest lying on the floor beside a hospital bed, making illicit use of a rerouted IV line. New love also brings a moment when one partner or the other takes command of the exhilaration–but rarely in such a bravura manner as Chan-wook invents for this couple. Standing with Sang-hyun on a rooftop several floors above street level, Tae-ju asks whether he’s able to jump down. In response, he wordlessly gathers her in his arms and leaps into the night air, his cassock billowing behind him–at which point you get a close-up of Tae-ju as Sang-hyun would see her, laughing wildly at the magic he has put at her disposal.
By the next time Chan-wook stages a scene on the rooftops, much later in Thirst, Tae-ju will have gained that terrible magic for herself, and Sang-hyun will be leaping after her from building to building, horrified at what he’s done both for her and to her. But she will not be horrified. Unlike her priest, whose vampirism only sharpens the bite of conscience, Tae-ju will revel in being a predator. If she were not undead, you would think the life force overflowed in her. As for responsible, remorseful, self-restrained Sang-hyun, you’d say his heart was all the more sick with desire for being fastened to an animal that won’t die.
This contrasting development between Tae-ju and Sang-hyun has distressed some viewers, who have resisted being carried away by the flood of Chan-wook’s images. According to A.O. Scott in his impeccably judicious review in the New York Times, “The difference between the lovers is indicative of the film’s queasy, quasi-misogynist ideas about eros and ethics.” But with due respect for a critic I admire, I will argue that Chan-wook’s supposed misogyny is visible only if you’re looking at Thirst with one eye–the eye that identifies with Sang-hyun. Look with both eyes at once so you also identify with Tae-ju, and you not only lose the misogyny but gain some depth perception.
Tae-ju is, admittedly, a reprehensible character; but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t suffered, and it doesn’t mean she’s wrong to reject being a victim. Thirst takes the trouble to show her wasting away at work in her mother-in-law’s airless kimono shop, and dragging through interminable nights of social boredom in the equally suffocating apartment. While Sang-hyun has been swaddled in bandages, Tae-ju’s owners (you can scarcely call them family) have kept her as immobile as a corpse in its winding sheet–so it’s no surprise that her pretended sleepwalking is actually a sprint through the deserted streets. She doesn’t just have to get out; she has to move. And if she eventually gains the ability to move like no mortal being, that’s not her doing but Sang-hyun’s. The vampire priest has needed her badly enough to give her power but then, in his anguished, mopey way, can’t accept the reality that power is what this woman needs. Depending on which eye you’re looking with, that makes him either a morally aware adult or a hypocrite.
Thirst is hardly the first film to play this double game with the audience; but it plays the game beautifully and with a brio that requires no apology. You might look for it on the one out-of-the-way screen where it still lingers in your town, its title now shrunk to insignificance amid the newspaper ads, its reflected light washing nightly across empty seats. Secrets are best savored in dark, hidden places.
Money changes hands in the first scene of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Lorna’s Silence, and in the second and the third. It’s not checks or electronic currency but old-fashioned folding money, the kind still used for paying low-wage workers, buying a few minutes on the telephone with an absent lover, acquiring street drugs, arranging for someone’s complicity in murder. As the camera follows the title character through the streets and bars of Liège, through its storefronts and cheap apartments and hospital rooms–in the Dardenne brothers’ cinema, the camera always trails along–Lorna becomes enmeshed with all of these functions of ready cash and struggles to get loose of the fatal ones, at greater and greater risk to herself.
A long-faced, serious-browed young Albanian with a unisex haircut (the kind that requires no upkeep), Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) starts out in the film halfway to her dream. By means of a paper marriage to Claudy (Jérémie Renier), a hunched, haggard, almost childlike junkie, she has attained Belgian citizenship and a small bank account. Now all she has to do to get the big wad of bills is stay out of the way while the thug who set her up in this scam (Fabrizio Rongione) provides Claudy with a timely overdose. Lorna will then be free to marry again, this time to a Russian with questionable professional associations, who will pay well to have her new citizenship rub off on him.
It’s a lurid premise, of the kind the Dardennes generally favor; and as usual in their flawlessly naturalistic films, it’s crude and awkward enough to seem true. I’ve never known them to compromise their honesty through their choice of a narrative conceit–only by flattering the audience occasionally, by having the protagonists of certain films do just what you think they should. Lorna meets the standard of being honest enough. She does become conscience-stricken over Claudy, despite the contempt she shows for him early in the film. (When he’s detoxing and begs for water, she gives it to him in a bowl set on the floor, as if he were a dog.) His harmlessness and candor get to her, and she softens, as you’d like her to. But her efforts to protect him are not so much admirable as impulsive, willful, masochistic, involving tactics such as mercy sex and blows to her own head. Her fantasies about him, as her plans unravel, become more and more unbalanced. By the end, Lorna is no longer within reach of the audience’s moral compass. She’s hardly even living in a society.
Lorna’s Silence is about the condition of one woman’s soul, as the title implies; but it’s also about an international economy that’s seldom talked about on this level. As the Dardennes see it, most people in this system of exchange are literally locked in, like Claudy, who is practically boxed with a price sticker on his head. A few, like the thug, deal in mobility, whether of goods or of people. (For a front, the thug pretends to be a cabbie.) And some people, like Lorna, come unstuck. She’s in motion but with nowhere to go, forced out of the movie’s closed spaces but unable to circulate freely. What’s she worth? Nothing.
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Among the questions I can’t answer about Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman: Whose calls does Verónica (Maria Onetto) keep taking on her cellphone and then disconnecting? By paying attention to the cellphone, rather than the deserted road she was speeding along, what has she hit with her Mercedes? How much time passes between the accident and her visit to an emergency room? Between the visit to an emergency room and her checking into a hotel? Had she ever made love to her cousin before? Does her husband know? Does her husband believe what he’s saying when he drives her around in circles at night, in impenetrable darkness, and insists she can see that she hit only a dog? Why does she insist back to him that it was a boy? And why, amid such confusion and death and heavy rain, is everyone so preoccupied with the texture of Verónica’s bleached hair?
I’m not sure that Martel gives any answers. What I know is that her droll, enigmatic fable about bourgeois discombobulation in the Argentine provinces has the comic timing of Samuel Beckett, the composition and color sense of William Eggleston and the very peculiar paranoid atmosphere of Lucrecia Martel. See for yourself. The Headless Woman begins its US theatrical run August 19, at Film Forum in New York City.