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Cannes '09 Day 2: Blood Simple

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 15, 2009 01:01 AM

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The thing everybody felt they had to do at 10 p.m. was see Park Chan-wook's vampire comedy, "Thirst," with Song Kang-ho (pictured above). The thing the festival felt it had to do at 10 p.m. was not start the film. It kept a few hundred people waiting in a corridor before letting them enter the house, creating, as far as I know, the year's first incident of pandemonium. It was minor (some booing, banging, and screaming). No one explained anything, not even the ordinarily invaluable, dapper staff (this year they all wear tan suits with white shirts).

The movie started at around 10:30, and about a quarter of the way in there was a gasp. Someone had fallen over near where we were sitting. A friend bolted into the lobby screaming "docteur," and what looked to be about six or seven people helping a single man had turned into two. It's crazy to think, but people appear to have been getting up to gawk then returning to the movie. I found myself springing up, unsure of what was even happening, and it wasn't until we'd carried this poor, disoriented fellow into the light and sat him in a tiny, empty theater that I realized that the other two guys weren't civilians but festival volunteers (tall, well-dressed, surprisingly not that strong).

In defense of the fainter, it was that kind of movie (chomping and sucking of flesh, gore, broken bones, weird sex). But to the nearby folks who remained seated, the movie wasn't that good. Park Chan-wook always leaves me at a miserable moral juncture. He can thrill ("Lady Vengeance") or nauseate ("Old Boy," "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance"). I've experienced both. "Lady Vengeance" felt like a breakthrough for Park. His storytelling and filmmaking pushed the tale of a town's revenge against a child killer to some exhilarating places. His sense of danger finally entered a moral universe.

The South Korean's lawlessness hits a wall in "Thirst," a movie about a priest (the peerlessly great Song Kang-ho) who becomes a vampire. The movie sidesteps the moral problems of the three "Vengeance" films but glibly skates the surface as Park did in the first two. As usual, he throws everything at the screen (puss, blood, howling cats) and out the window (bodies mostly), as the movie turns into a kind of grisly screwball-love story between the priest and a demure housewife (Kim Ok-bin, called, more than once around town, the Korean Beyoncé). She's awakened first by plain-old lust, then by a lust for blood. Song and Kim are wonderful apart and together, licking and sucking each other's fingers and toes (accordingly, I'll salivate, on some future day, over how South Korea has some of Earth's best actors). They're doing "Let the Wrong One in."

The movie contains its pleasures: it's kinky and crazy, perverse and perfectly shot, assembled, and staged. (It makes "Angels & Demons" look like a Ron Howard movie -- hey, wait minute...) Unfortunately, Park puts this energetic gorgeousness into what, for all its sex, comedy, visual ingenuity (his camera really can do anything), is still a vampire film. And vampire films by their very nature come with a set of guildelines that, to my disappointment, Park adheres to. This is a director who, even at his most problematic, does things his way. Here he's following rules he can bend but can't bring himself to break.

"Thirst" gave me a better appreciation for Bahman Ghobadi's "No One Knows about the Persian Cats," which I saw earlier in the day and follows two Iranian musicians and their attempts to put together a band in a country where most pop music is underground music. Their aim is to play in European festivals. Ghobadi's "Turtles Can Fly" from 2004 was organically devastating. This movie works much, much harder. Tones clash, and it doesn't seem entirely finished (shots out of focus, that sort of thing). But its political concerns over Iranian suppression seem all the more sincere in light of Park's furious glibness. "Persian Cats" is not nearly as accomplished a work of filmmaking. But that a piece of it stays with you counts as an accomplishment.

By the way, the volunteers told me the guy who fainted during "Thirst" is OK.

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