“Thirsty, Thirsty” is a Korean independent production which marks the directorial debut of Hong Hyun Ki, who had previously worked as an assistant to Lee Chang Dong on the superb “Oasis” and “Peppermint Candy”. Balancing humour, humanity and bittersweet realism, the film earns extra points for featuring an unusual and not immediately sympathetic protagonist in the form of a portly debt collector, played by television actor Lee Doo Il. The film has enjoyed success on the circuit following its premier at the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2008, with Hong being awarded Best Director in the New Asian Talent section of the recent 11th Shanghai International Film Festival.
The plot revolves around lowly debt collector Chang Sik (Lee Doo Il), who hope to make it big, but who isn’t particularly good at his job, thanks to his lack of killer instinct and the fact that he has a habit of running up debts of his own. During the course of his work, he comes across a variety of different characters, including Cho (Kim Ik Tae), a father who has borrowed far too much money in order to pay for his daughter’s marriage, young college graduate Soo Gyo (Kang In Hyung, “King and I”) who has fallen into the trade after being unable to find a more prestigious job, and a young single mother called Seon Jo (actress Ryu Hyun Kyung, also in “The Divine Weapon”, and who has recently expanded her own career into directing) who is growing increasingly desperate for money herself. As a result, poor Chang Sik finds his life becoming even more complicated as he faces up to a series of increasingly challenging moral decisions, not all of which he seems likely to make for the best.
“Thirsty, Thirsty” is a film very much driven by its characters, all of whom are unconventional and offbeat, though at the same time believable and engaging. This is especially true of Chang Sik, who is about as far from a traditional leading man as it is possible to get, being the kind of character who could quite easily have been either a villainous figure, or simply a bit part player. Lee Doo Il is excellent in the role, turning in a wholly convincing performance, adding a real sense of humanity to the wretched man, and making him sympathetic, and even likeable. As such, despite some of his less than righteous actions during the latter stages of the film, he still emerges as an unfortunate, essentially decent man who has been pushed to take unpleasant actions by the harshness of life.
The film earns extra points and is all the more involving for not being the kind of redemptive story that might have been expected, with Hong never offering any easy answers or sliding into cheap melodrama. The other characters are similarly interesting and well drawn, with Ryu Hyun Kyung also on impressive form, ensuring that Seon Jo is far from being a simple a damsel in distress, being at once a victim of her own misdoings, and a troubled woman in search of her path in life.
This serves well to lend the film an air of realism, and although for the most part it simply follows its characters trying to get by in the world, it is quietly engrossing throughout, without needing any artificial drama to keep the viewer interested. Hong deals skilfully with themes of self worth and dignity, and there are some surprisingly powerful and hard hitting scenes during the final act. Sadly, he does seem to lose his nerve right at the end, with a somewhat tacked on epilogue that merely raises a smile without actually adding anything. Whilst it does get a bit depressing in places, the film is filled with deadpan humour throughout, and is frequently very funny, often in a subtle manner that shies away from obvious gags. A lot of the jokes do have a decidedly bitter edge to them, and the film to an extent is dark comedy of errors, with Chang Sik setting himself up for a series of mishaps in his quest for money.
Of course, as with all the best black comedies, the viewer is quite often unsure whether to laugh or to wince, and with “Thirsty, Thirsty” Hong Hyun Ki certainly seems to have learned well from Lee Chang Dong when it comes to irony and the amusing inevitability of human failings. Although not always easy going, it shows not only wit and intelligence, but also a sense of understanding, following its characters doggedly through the ups, and more importantly, the many downs of life.
Hong Hyun-gi (director) / Hong Hyun-gi (screenplay)
CAST: Lee Doo-il, Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong, Kang In-hyeong, Kim Ik-tae, Son Byeong-ho, Ahn Nae-sang, Choo Kwi-jeong , Park Myeong-sin