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Standing Witness

Standing Witness (photo)

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In the nearly two decades that I’ve been writing film reviews, I can’t recall another week that saw the release of three movies that are guaranteed to wind up on my year-end Ten Best list. The movies are vampire love story “Thirst” and the documentaries “The Cove,” about an aquatic conservationist’s attempts to stop the slaughter of dolphins, and “Severe Clear,” an autobiographical account of one Marine’s experiences in Iraq. Beyond their dramatic merits, all three demonstrate a front-and-center mastery of technique. They use image and sound not just for the usual, so-called “classical” purposes (to define the characters and advance the story) but to encourage the audience to think about filmmaking’s ability to express states of mind.

The latest provocation from South Korean director Park Chan-Wook (director of the critically divisive “Vengeance” trilogy: “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance”), “Thirst” is, in no particular order, a horror movie, a sexually explicit tale of doomed love, a kooky romantic comedy, a crime thriller, a social satire about the tension between fringe-dwelling loners and so-called “respectable” people, and possibly a parable of drug addiction and lost faith as well. That it dares attempt so many different modes is impressive; that it reconciles them is astonishing.

Park adapted the film’s script from Émile Zola’s 1867 novel “Thérèse Raquin” — a predecessor to Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” about a couple of furtive lovers plotting to kill one’s clueless significant other. Such a melodramatically ripe plot would normally be considered sufficient fuel for a feature. But Park is no ordinary director, and this dense but nimble film is his masterpiece. The protagonist, Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), is a Catholic hospital’s chaplain who contracts vampirism through a transfusion and slakes his thirst by secretly drinking blood from sick or dying patients — an act that mysteriously heals those same patients and earns Sang-hyeon a reputation as a one-man Lourdes in a turned-around collar. After he cures cancer in a long-estranged childhood friend named Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), the hero is invited to live with the man’s extended family, which includes a scowling battle-axe of a mother (Kim Hae-sook) and the school chum’s young wife, Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin). She’s a meek, nearly mute foundling who’s treated as a domestic slave by the family, and a combination whore and nanny by her goon husband.

07292009_thirst3.jpgIt’s a given that the priest and the young wife will learn they’re kindred spirits, but Park builds to the realization with a dazzling sense of play. Sang-hyeon is allergic to sunlight and inclined to wander the city at night for reasons beyond his control. But it turns out that Tae-Joo is a night person, too — not just a sleepwalker, but a sleep-runner who sprints through deserted streets barefoot. There’s a multilayered resonance here: Tae-joo’s sleep-running combines a somnambulist’s psychic restlessness and an abused wife’s longing to run away as fast as her feet will carry her; the eerie unrealness of the night-running scenes, with their echoing sound effects and end-of-the-world panoramic tableaus, suggest that they are a beautiful dream — protected mental spaces in which an enslaved woman can be free. The moment when the characters recognize their kinship (he chases her as she runs away, snatches her by the shoulders, lifts her up with a brusqueness that seems a prelude to murder, then chivalrously lowers her bare feet into his own oversized shoes) has a fairytale charge. Subsequent wuxia-inspired images of the lovers bounding across rooftops push the film’s romantic streak into the realm of pure bliss, like the airborne bike ride in “E.T.” and the night flight through Metropolis in the original “Superman.”

Tae-joo and Sang-hyeon’s sexual encounters are among the hottest, most tender couplings I’ve seen on film. They’re intense but awkward, and more intense because they’re awkward. He’s a priest still clinging to the remnants of his faith, and she’s a psychologically bruised prisoner of a rotten domestic situation. Their circumstances invest their trysts in a storage room of the boarding house with a dirty-pure adolescent power, and give mundane carnal/logistical matters (how to remove undergarments when one has already mounted a partner; how to climax quietly so mom doesn’t hear) an electric charge. (In American movies, characters make love. In Europe and Asia, they fuck.)

But here, too, Park isn’t content to master a particular mode (forbidden romance that leads into a murder plot, with the lovers planning to drown the wife’s husband in a boating “accident”) and be done with it. Tae-joo and Sang-hyeon’s affair goes through so many evolutionary stages (including ones of vampirism), and is so carefully observed by Park and his cast, that it becomes a stand-in for any great love that couldn’t go the distance. There’s a touch of “Annie Hall” in the way that Tae-joo gives herself over to a stalwart mentor figure, then grows beyond him and starts to find him dull and limiting. And there are echoes of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Natural Born Killers” in the lovers’ steadily escalating offenses. Once the bloom is off the rose, they start sniping at each other. The circularity of their mutual resentment is hilarious. She taunts him for skulking around hospital corridors and feeding on corpses and sick people while she’s out there busting her hump to collect “fresh blood”; he chides her for killing mortals because she likes the taste, and for hiding the fact that she’s capable of deception and cruelty; she counters that perhaps he’s not really committed to his lifestyle, and is as much a prisoner of middle-class guilt as the petty relatives she hates and wants to kill.

07292009_thirst4.jpgPark has been making movies just long enough that one can no longer credibly dismiss him as a flavor-of-the-month or a fanboy curiosity. His durability, coupled with the awards he’s been accumulating (including a jury prize for “Thirst” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) may prompt critics who blasted him as a shallow sadist a few years ago to trumpet the arrival of a more sophisticated Park — one who’s genuinely interested in morality and ethics rather than using them as cover for arty visuals and ugly mayhem. But anyone who paid attention to Park’s filmmaking will recognize “Thirst” not as an aberration or evolution, but as the latest installment in a filmography that has always been self-aware, self-critical and sincerely interested in the representation and implications of screen violence. The final leg of “Thirst,” which pushes its lovers past cruelty and bloodlust and into moral exhaustion, then amoral boredom, then toward a too-late awareness of what they’ve lost, is explicitly a morality play. It implicates the viewer in its heroes’ atrocities by encouraging us to share their lust, their flirtatious humor and their conspiratorial, us-against-the-world excitement, then cutting such reveries short by taking us outside their sphere of passion — cutting, for example, to the spastic twitching of one of their victims, or the mother’s accusing stare. (Park often zooms in very tight on Mom’s face so that her eyes fill up the screen: it’s as if she’s sizing us up and passing judgment, shaming us for enjoying ourselves.)

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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