The festival is beginning to take its toll on me, especially as I also have to work during these afternoons, so I only managed to fit in two films in my schedule. By shear chance, both of them were South Korean and both starred the always good Kang-ho Song.
Song is one of Korea’s biggest moviestars, but he also is a very competent and versatile actor, often adding a touch of humour in his roles. I first became aware of him in Swiri (from 1999) by Je-gyu Kang, who five years later made the good war film Brotherhood. After Swiri, Song did J.S.A. Joint Security Area, which was his first collaboration with Chan-wook Park. Park used Song in his next project, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, as well. Park went on to make the internationally acclaimed Oldboy, without Song this time. He gave him a cameo in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance before granting him the undisputed lead in Thirst, which is the first film I saw today.
Thirst is a gorgeously filmed vampire story. For the first hour it is really good, at times exceptionally so. There are scenes we haven’t seen before and the protagonist is definitely not your typical vampire. Song plays a devout catholic priest who becomes a vampire through a tainted blood transfusion after having briefly died as a test subject for an experimental vaccine. He soon realizes his predicament, and not feeling it is a sin, as he didn’t ask for this to happen to him, he considers it an illness and not inherently bad in any moral way. There is initially no big change in his personality and he makes sure that he doesn’t harm anyone in order to procure the necessary quantities of blood, tapping blood from coma victims at the local hospital who are not likely to miss a bottle or two of the red stuff.
Soon, however, he is introduced to Tae-joo, a young woman forced into servitude of her sickly husband and mother in law. The priest, soon to be ex-priest, and Tae-joo begin an erotic relationship which is very well represented in the film. The scenes of love making all seem natural and as a result comes off as truly erotic and not the silly wish fulfilment fantasies of countless Hollywood films. Unfortunately, it turns out that his love is a bit of a femme fatale who uses him for her own ends. From this point in, I felt the film became overlong, dwelling too much on its grantedly beautiful frames, but not advancing the plot in any surprising ways, or at all. I won’t spoil the film, so I’ll limit myself to saying that for me, at least, the film didn’t reach its potential. I saw where the film was heading and it didn’t make any meaningful detours from that direction. As a result, a short trip felt far too long. What made this second half of the film worth staying, was the stellar work of Ok-vin Kim, an actress I’d never heard of before. She really made the character of Tae-joo a full bodied creature, upping the menacing aspects of her arc in the film. I’ll recommend the film with caution, as it is very well made and looks fantastic, with some really breath taking scenes. Just be aware that the recommendation is not unconditional.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird also stars Kang-ho Song. In this film he plays almost an amalgamation of the two characters he has played in the films of my favourite Korean director, Joon-ho Bong. I assume anyone with an interest in Korean films has seen Memories of Murder, in which Song plays a policemen with a temper and some intellectual shortcomings. I personally found this even better than David Fincher’s Zodiac, being a very similar story. Song also played in the environmental monster film The Host, which was a bit of a hit internationally as well. Here he played a well meaning buffoon, possibly short of some marbles.
As The Good, the Bad, the Weird gives Song the chance to essay a character who seemingly has two personalities, he can really let loose with his two most typical screen personas. Song, of course, is the weird one of the title.
The film is directed by Ji-woon Kim, who among others has made the solid A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life. Kim is a very visually oriented director, often presenting tableaus which are easier to admire than really like, but in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, he uses his considerable talents to give us the purest entertainment this side of Indiana Jones (disregarding the fourth near-abomination). The title of the film makes the countless nods to Sergio Leone quite clear, but more than a Spaghetti Eastern, I felt this was an adventure film, an action film like they don’t make em anymore.
The plot is all a bit of nonsense, with a treasure map serving as a MacGuffin for countless inventive chases and spectacular fight scenes, not with kung-Fu, but guns, cannons and everything that can be fired from a steel tube. In between the action scenes, we get to know the characters just enough to care about them. There is also a sub-plot regarding how Korea has been stolen by the Japanese, and as a result the three protagonists are men with no country, all now making a life lived in the eternal present in a soon to be mythic Manchuria. This gives them the chance to reinvent themselves, something Song’s character has done most successfully, gladly accepting the role as a happy-go-lucky small time thief and adventurer. Again, I can’t say more, as it would spoil a plot point towards the end.
The plot, however is not the important thing here. The unbridled entertainment on display is all that counts. I laughed out loud many times during the film and too often during the action scenes, I found myself sitting with my mouth open for a longer time than is considered proper in polite society. The only thing that was a let down was the ending, which I felt was too abrupt and disappointing in its stock situation. I felt that it was unnecessary to emulate Leone to such a degree at this point. That particular scene can probably never be bettered anyway, so it was a bit of a suicide attempt for Kim to try to get away with it. Be sure, by the way, to watch some minutes into the credits, as some resolution can be found there. Heartily recommended, but not for those who feel that all art should be slow moving, reflective and involve the deeper meaning of life, come hell or high water.