Monday, August 3, 2009

Quench My THIRST - Chan-wook Park's latest: reviewed! Plus: a Weird, Wild, and Crazy Trip to the OC Super Fair!

Man, another manic Monday. Today has been a bit nutty. I had a doctor appointment this morning to have my ankle looked at, due to a sprain that I suffered almost two years ago now. As longtime readers of the blog may recall, two summers ago I woke up ready to fly from LA to NYC for a company offsite event, when I tripped over a poorly-placed suitcase upon stumbling out of bed. I suffered a severe ankle sprain, but at the time the doctor kept saying it was nothing more than that. I simply wore an ankle brace for awhile, iced it a lot, and that was that ... or so I thought. The fact was that my ankle has remained semi-swollen all this time, and just never quite felt 100% healed ... and I've long supsected that *something* was up with it, even though time after time my doctor reassured me that nothing was wrong. Well, a few weeks ago I switched doctors, and the new guy instantly saw that there was likely something wrong there. So, today I saw a foot and ankle specialist who suspects that there may indeed be a torn ligament of some kind. MRI is scheduled for Friday. Joy. Ugh - it is just yet another example of how doctors can be idiots. I had several appointments over the course of two years with my primary care physician and was told over and over that nothing was wrong, despite my concerns. So that was the start of my Monday ...

Anyways, whatever, it was a fun weekend so let's talk about that instead. Some highlights included a showing of Korean vampire import THIRST on Friday evening, and then on Sunday, me, Kyle O., and the G-Man ventured to the OC for the annual ORANGE COUNTY SUPER FAIR. I had never been to the fair before, and it was a great time. I guess the east-coast comparison is probably The Big E, which is held every year in New England. But I'd venture to say that The OC Fair is a lot bigger and crazier than even the Big E. Held in Costa Mesa, it's a gigantic carnival of rides, games, animals, vendors, arts, crafts, exhibits, and more food than you ever imagined could be contained in one venue. It's funny, because I imagined that the fair would have all kinds of traditional fair foods - popcorn, sno-cones, etc. But I was not prepared for the sheer insanity of the food vendors at the OC Fair. Any manner of deep-fried artery-clogger you could ever imagine, and some items you never dreamed could actually exist, were on display, in a vast array of gaudily-designed food stands, each one with more audacious menu items than the last. Deep-fried Zucchini Weenies! Krispy Kreme Chicken Sandwiches! Pizza on a stick! Deep-fried decadence platters of funnel cakes with Bavarian cream and chocolate drizzle! Every meat, salty snack, vegetable, or dessert item you could imagine was offered up in the most decadent and over-the-top and often deep-fried manner you could think of. Crazy, I tell ya'. I also think attending the fair made me about 25% more redneck. There was all kinds of livestock on-hand at the festival, along with horses and even an elephant, but the capper had to be the fact that they had ... racing pigs! Yes, my friends and I actually sat and watched pigs square off in races, and rooted for the likes of Spider-Ham to outrace Harry Porker. I may as well turn in my liberal Democrat card now.

But ... amidst all the down-home, deep-fried foods and racing pigs, there was in fact a shining bastion of subversive humor and free-thinking intellectualism at the OC Fair, and that beacon of light was AL'S BRAIN, a special Weird Al exhibit that featured an all-new 3D movie created by and starring none other than the Weird One himself. As a lifelong fan of all things Al, I was particularly excited for what was sure to be a typically bizarre and zany trip into the mind of Mr. Yankovic. I was not disappointed, as Al's Brain was a smart, imaginative, and oftentimes hilarious exhibit / movie. The 3D film was actually great - it was vintage Al, very funny, and featured a brain-themed song that brought back memories of listening to the likes of "Fat," "Yoda," and "Like a Surgeon." Plus, the movie featured hilarious cameos from the likes of Thomas Lennon, Patton Oswalt, Fabio (!), and even Paul McCartney (!!!). Given the unfortunate fact that kids today don't get regular doses of Al on MTV like we used to back in the day, I can only hope that a new generation of kids sees Al's Brain and become fans for life. Man, is that guy a genius. I can only wonder what the OC crowd made of his offbeat antics.

But yeah, it was a fun day at the Super Fair, and the pictures are on Facebook to prove it.

- Now, I do want to talk about THIRST, which was, well, something completely different ...

THIRST Review:

- If you are the type of film fan who loves something a little wild, a little crazy, a little out-there, then you should definitely check out THIRST - a new vampire romance-epic from Chan-wook Park, the visionary Korean director behind cult favorites like Oldboy. Thirst is Chan's take on the vampire genre, but it's like no vampire movie you've ever seen - it has that unique flair to it that is a speciality of Chan - it's a strange but engrossing hybrid of sex, violence, horror, and humor that can't easily be described or classified. But if you're into vampires and have a tolerance for insane Korean cinema, then Thirst is pretty much a must-see. Is it as good as Oldboy? I wouldn't quite put it in the same category as that breakthrough film. Is it as memorable as last year's entry in the offbeat foreign vampire genre, Let The Right One In? As good as Thirst is, I don't know if it's quite as unique and haunting as 2008's Swedish shocker. But Thirst is something totally different than anything being released into the mainstream this summer, and it is a tour de force of insane vampire love. The obvious comparison to make is with Twilight, but the only real similarity is a focus on romance and a sort of descent to the dark side. But if you must make the comparison, Thirst is basically the crazy Korean cousin of Twilight that's full of brutal violence, explicit sex, grand themes of morality and mortality, and a whacked-out sense of humor that is very much foreign to our typical American sensibilities.

That's not to say that Thirst is some kind of grindhouse exploitation film. While it is explicit in many ways, the sex and violence is not just tossed in for no reason. Instead, it's all tied in to the movie's almost operatic story of a priest, Song, who slowly and unwillfully gives in to the dark side. See, our protagonist here is a pious man of the cloth who is so devout that he actually volunteers himself to be infected with a horrific disease in order to be used as a test subject in the search for a potential cure. What he doesn't plan on is that he is, in fact, miraculously cured, but it's thanks to a blood transfusion that injects him with a shot of old-fashioned vampire blood. So suddenly, our holy man is an undead vampire with a taste for blood and all kinds of other burgeoning desires.

These desires begin to manifest, and what results is our conflicted priest trying with all his might to stick to his morals and not give in to the pull of his new vampiric longings. At first, for example, he tries only to feed on terminally-ill patients, who he is in effect putting out of their misery. But in what turns out to be a kind of Sid and Nancy-style relationship, the priest runs into a girl, Tae-joo, who was a childhood crush, and who now lives a live of indentured servitude with her stepmother and stepbrother, who she has been forced to marry. This odd, somewhat incestuous relationship calls to mind some of the same themes as Oldboy, and here Tae-joo undergoes a similar metamorphasis to Song. Soon enough, the two modest and virginal characters are exploring their every darkest desire, but the question is -- how far will they go? And how much of this is truly the influence of the vampire, and how much is simply a psychological drive to shatter one's own personal set of taboos. As with his other films, Chan sets up a fascinating morality play, and there is a truly intense philisophical subtext at work here. The two main performances are also outstanding - the actor playing Song is great and the actress playing Tae-joo is a true powderkeg.

Visually, the movie is simply stunning. There are scenes here that are so remarkably shot that they will be burned into the very synapses of your brain. There is a grotesque beauty to even the film's most violent and disturbing scenes, and the choreography and cinematography is unmatched. I think that Thirst is really worth seeing for the gorgeous direction alone.

With all this praise, you might be wondering when the other shoe will drop. Well, here's the thing: Thirst is a unique and praise-worthy movie, but it can also be a very uneven one. Part of this could just be chalked up to the style of Chan-wook Park and Korean filmmaking in general - for example the wild shifts from deadly seriousness to slapstick comedy - but, at the same time, the movie just seems to meander a bit at times. The strength of the movie is clearly the Song / Tae-joo relationship, and yet far too much time is spent on oddball subplots like an aging and blind priest who wants Song to turn him into a vampire. Similarly, some of the movie's more comedic elements just start to drag after a while. Take Tae-joo's vegetative mom, who's character arc is like something out of Weekend at Bernies. Finally, I give a ton of credit to Chan for attempting to realize such an ambitious, epic film - but oftentimes the character development just feels jumpy and a bit random. Without spoiling the ending, for example, I ahve to say that to me it felt pretty abrupt given what had just come beforehand. That's not to say it wasn't a striking scene in and of itself, but just that there isn't necessarilly a very organic character arc at play here. All in all, the movie just felt a bit less cohesive and fully-realized than, say, Oldboy.

But man, as a piece of operatic and visual cinema, Thirst is a sight to behold. This is gory, bloody, steamy, and it holds nothing back. It's an uncompromised creative vision, and its vampires done as only a guy like Chan-wook Park could do them. While the movie didn't come together quite as seamlessly as I might as hoped, I still consider this a must see for any real film fans out there.

My Grade: B+

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