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by Mark Jenkins,
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AUGUST 19, 2009

Sea Changes

The transformations of Miyazaki's Ponyo are a commonplace form of anime magic; Thirst is haunted by yet another ethical vampire.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening in D.C. this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: SOUL POWER.

FOR ANYONE WHO'S SEEN THE COVE, the topography of Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo will seem a little ominous. The central character, 5-year-old Sosuke, lives in a mountain house overlooking a sinuous coastline that resembles that of Taiji, site of the documentary's real-life horrors. (The film's Japanese title means Ponyo on the Clifftop). There doesn't seem to be a fishing industry in this village, though. Sosuke's mostly absent father is an oceangoing ship captain, while his mother, Lisa, is in one of the country's major growth industries; she works at the old folks's home adjacent to her son's school.

If Sosuke's land is recognizably contemporary Japan, Ponyo comes from a realm that combines elements of Jules Verne, marine archaeology, Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid, and such previous Miyazaki ecological alerts as Princess Mononoke. A "goldfish" with a human face, red hair, and a zygote-like body, Ponyo is a somewhat alarming creature. She's the daughter of mad scientist/magician Fujimoto, who appears human but lives underwater, and considers earth-dwellers "disgusting." Mom is some sort of sea deity who's identified by one sailor as "the goddess of mercy." In Japanese Buddhism, that would be Kannon, but there's not much that's Buddhist in Ponyo. Its vision of a world in which everything is in constant and rather mischievous flux is much more Shinto.

Ponyo's name is originally Brunhilde, which plays into the Wagnerian motifs of Joe Hisaishi's overbearing score. She's drawn to the land, and is renamed "Ponyo" ("Poh-nee-yoh" in the Japanese spelling) by Sosuke, who puts her in a bucket. Because she's tasted Sosuke's blood — he has a cut on his finger — Ponyo begins to turn human. Fujimoto retrieves her, but Ponyo flees again. Her second escape throws the universe out of balance, or something like that, and the moon drifts close to Earth, causing massive flooding. Left alone at Sosuke's house when the boy's mom goes to check on the seniors's home, the two kids set out to find Lisa in a toy boat powered by a candle.

Perhaps compensating for not having recognized Miyazaki's gifts earlier, American reviewers have gone wild for Ponyo, using words like "magical" and "masterpiece." The movie is neither of those, although it does have its charms. Miyazaki still animates by hand, which makes the film a nice contrast to the chilly, hard-edged computer animation that's crushed Hollywood. His notable visual variation this time is to render Sosuke's world in soft, loose colors that seem to have been produced by pastel crayons. And while the movie is short on the lovingly rendered old machines that are one of the writer-director's trademarks, it does have a nice sequence in which Sosuke and Ponyo watch prehistoric fish swim under their tiny vessel. The human (and semi-human) characters look less interesting than the backdrops, but that's standard for Miyazaki.

Shorter and less preachy than the animator's last several films (although it does hit the ecological alarm several times), Ponyo is also less personal. Aside from such longstanding Miyazaki obsessions as little girls's underpants — Ponyo's are regularly displayed — the movie is commonplace Japanimation. The frequent metamorphoses are typical of the form, as is the random mix of Japanese and Euro-American culture and the movie's creepiest aspect, the "true romance" of its kindergarten-age protagonists. It's not unusual for a Miyazaki movie to mix, as Ponyo does, astonishing images with indifferent storytelling. But there's less character and conviction here than in most of his films. Even if the U.S. version hadn't been disfigured with dubbed voices (a Jonas brother! a Cyrus sister! and Tina Fey!), Ponyo would feel generic.

PONYO — 2008, 100 min; at Regal Gallery Place, AMC Loews Georgetown, Landmark Bethesda Row, and multiple suburban multiplexes.

PARK CHAN-WOOK BECAME THE KOREAN DIRECTOR best known in the West because of his revenge trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy, and Lady Vengeance. These films are not celebrated for their stories. Like Miyazaki, Park is a master of the set piece. He cares less for well-constructed narrative than astonishing moments like the one in Old Boy where a man, hungry for retribution, eats a live octopus.

His latest film, Thirst, has striking set pieces, of course; it's the story of a Roman Catholic priest who becomes a vampire, so it's plump with blood and cloaked in shadow. The movie also has loads of plot, some of it adapted from Émile Zola's 1867 novel, Thèrése Raquin — a shocker in its time. But the story is too complicated and ultimately shapeless. What remains is striking imagery and a hackneyed theme: a vampire who craves blood but doesn't want to kill, a character that's almost as familiar in recent cinema as the middle-aged boy-child.

The film begins in a hospital, to which it will return. Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) comforts the sick and the dying, but he craves even more suffering. So he volunteers for a research project on the Emmanuel Virus. "Emmanuel" is Hebrew for "God is with us," but the virus is hardly divine. It's incurable, in fact, yet Sang-hyun survives, after the small complication of dying. His miraculous renewal makes the priest a magnet for Korean Catholics seeking faith healing, and one of his petitioners is a man he when they were boys. Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) lives with his bossy mother and his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), an orphan who was raised as Kang-woo's stepsister. This is where Zola's plot enters, although Park soon deviates from it to initiate Tae-ju into the vampire clan. Unlike Sang-hyun, Tae-ju proves entirely willing to kill for blood.

That's not the half of it. The story becomes a grab-bag of incidents, including murder, suicide, resurrection, ghostly visitations, viral recurrences, psychedelic visions, and a lot of Mah Jong. Smart and stylish, if rather aimless, Park's latest is no mere genre movie. That's not altogether a good thing, since at their best genre flicks are more efficient than this. Putting a vampire in a priest's collar is a hoot, but otherwise Thirst well-chewed stuff.

THIRST — 2009, 134 min; at Landmark E Street.