Thursday, June 29, 2017

Critic’s Crypt: The Dark Appetites of Thirst (2009) and Raw (2016)

Song Kang-ho, Shin Ha-ky and Kim Ok-bin in Thirst (2009)

Some of the most effective horror storytelling happens in the clash between our civilized façades and the primal urges that lurk beneath. In confronting the uncivilized, the uncouth, the unspoken, and the unholy, we expose the uncomfortable truth: that we are much more like animals than we’d care to admit. We are all of us base and feral, and the fear we experience in the cinema seat is really prompted by that curtain of pretense lifting away, so that we come face to face with our true reflections. This is why horror is among the most thematically honest forms of fiction, and why films like Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009) and Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) are so brutally effective.

Thirst is tragicomic, a tale of illicit love that is expressed through the trappings of a vampire film. Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a Catholic priest, experiences a lust that runs deeper than simple want – his is an all-consuming thirst, for everything his lifestyle and profession and belief system tell him he cannot have. His façade of faith and public service is flimsy, providing relief to his self-obsessed congregation but doing little to disguise his real feelings of sadness and emptiness. In volunteering for an experiment that seeks the cure for a deadly virus, it’s clear that his longing is really for escape from this life, even if that escape is final. When the experiment fails and he appears to die – only to experience a “miraculous” recovery once he receives a blood transfusion – he resigns himself to his cursed existence, not yet realizing that his curse is much more than spiritual.

Among the parishioners who flock to him, believing him to be a living saint, is Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), who invites Sang-hyun to join in his weekly mahjong game. There, Sang-hyun meets Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), Kang-woo’s dreary wife, who unlocks the demons of want living inside of him. His skin sizzles in the sun, he discovers a remarkable strength, and eventually he finds himself nursing at a comatose man’s blood drip like a suckling baby. He makes a pointless suicide attempt. He cannot bring himself to commit murder, but once Tae-ju succumbs to her own feelings of desire and need for escape by seducing him, there are few of his flimsy rules left that he hasn’t broken. He is no longer the man he was. There is no turning back – only the predatory thirst that drives him into the future.

Thirst is a film about love, in the sense that its brutal gore and lustful killings are metaphorical extensions of the desire that pulls Sang-hyun and Tae-ju together. They both want what they tell themselves they cannot have, and it’s not the slaking of that thirst that dooms them both, but rather the guilt that hangs over it. Thirst is about the avariciousness of love, the blinding, deafening, all-consuming greed for attention and sexual satisfaction from others that simultaneously frees and debases us. The film uses the vocabulary of a rom-com, with its will-they-or-won’t-they rhythms. But we all know that they will. And, though it costs them everything, they do.

How romantic, right?

Garance Marillier in Raw (2016).

Raw expresses a different palette of hunger, driven by the painful awakenings of a coming-of-age story. Thirst is the work of a seasoned professional, but this remarkable film is the debut of a razor-sharp new cinematic voice. Raw centers on Justine (Garance Marillier), a lifelong vegetarian who arrives at an elite veterinary school in France only to be confronted with a savage set of hazing rituals that utterly shake her, forcing her in the most extreme way possible to experience the doubts about who she is and who she wants to be that are common to that period of life. Justine’s experience at school is anything but common: the place is a freak show of abusive senior students, wild parties, and upsettingly dispassionate veterinary schoolwork, a flurry of bacchanalia and animal biology. Justine seeks refuge in her roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), but the bizarre rituals she’s forced to complete – like a surprise ceremonial bloodbath reminiscent of Carrie, or the forced consumption of raw rabbit kidney – begin to change her in ways that even her friends and family can’t prevent. Slowly but surely, Justine comes out of her shell, by giving in to her newfound cravings.

Raw invites comparisons to Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps and De Palma’s Sisters in its themes of adolescence, sisterhood, and murder, but Ducournau carves out a chunk of unique territory. The film feels as muscular as the sinewy cadavers the students dissect, playing with rich symbolism in the midst of shocking body horror. Ducournau’s direction is amazingly measured and purposeful for a debut filmmaker, investing every new scene with mounting tension and fresh ways to assault our sensibilities. Marillier is an absolute star, delivering a fascinating performance that locks our attention on the gently unfolding layers of this complicated young woman. Just as Park did in Thirst, Ducournau invests Raw with thoughtful metaphor that elevates its gory thrills. But if Thirst is about forbidden love, then Raw is about something much more complex: the restrictive, confounding, forbidding process of becoming a woman, and the bonds that only sisters can share. I am neither a woman nor a sister, and the glimpses of those experiences I saw in Raw made me feel – with excruciating certainty – that I really have no idea what that must be like.

This is the awful, wonderful power of horror cinema. Skilled filmmakers like Park and Ducournau aren’t just purveyors of cheap titillation; they’re scientists of the human heart – anatomizing and laying bare everything that would enlighten us, but which we’d rather not acknowledge. They slap the frozen truth down onto metal tables and slice it open, asking only of us that we have the courage not to cringe and look away. This isn’t savagery; it’s compassion. Horror fans are the nicest people you’d ever want to meet, because they’ve learned not to look away. They’ve stared the truth in the face, and come to terms with it. They’re more at peace than anyone.

I ate dinner while I watched Thirst and Raw. Can you say the same?

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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