Written by: Seo-Gyeong Jeong and Chan-wook Park
Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ok-bin Kim, and Hae-sook Kim
Reviewed by: Brett G.
”Bloodlust disturbs the soul.”
In my near-two-year stint here at OTH, it seems like I’ve run into one particular sub-genre has reared its fangs more so than any other: the vampire film. A staple since the beginning of the horror genre itself, the vampire’s popularity has especially experienced a recent resurgence in popularity, no doubt due to those sparkly Twilight bastards. If there is one thing that Twilight did get right, it’s the idea of a forbidden love that has accompanied the vampire throughout its existence. Enter South Korean film-maker Park Chan-wook (whose film Oldboy tackled the most forbidden of loves), who has this time-worn tale and retold it by way of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. The result is Thirst, which garnered a significant amount of buzz on the festival circuit before finally coming home courtesy of Universal.
Sang-hyun is a priest is suffering a recent bout with faith, as the world around him seems to be one of constant suffering. Hoping to make some sort of difference, he essentially martyrs himself by participating in an experiment seeking to find a vaccine for the deadly Emmanuel Virus. At first, the experiment seems to fail horribly, as Sang-hyun seems to contract the disease; however, he is soon miraculously cured and becomes the first test subject to survive where five-hundred others perished. News of Sang-hyun’s survival quickly spreads, and the local congregation believe him to be a miracle-healer. The virus soon re-emerges, with seemingly fatal results; however, Sang-hyun once again survives, but not without one huge side effect: vampirism. Furthermore, while volunteering at the local hospital, he encounters his childhood friend, Kang-woo, who invites him to join his circle of friends. Among this group is Kang-woo’s wife, Tae-ju, whom was adopted as a child by Kang-woo’s mother. There is an immediate attraction between Sang-hyun and the disenchanted Tae-ju, and the two eventually enter a relationship with deadly and destructive consequences.
Having been a fan of the aforementioned Oldboy, I was naturally interested to see what Park Chan-wook would do with the vampire genre. Thirst is certainly a unique take, perhaps in the way that the vampirism itself often takes a back seat to the carefully crafted human drama that provides the film’s backbone. In many ways, the vampirism seems to provide an excuse for Sang-hyun to dispense his reserved and religious nature; in fact, the film itself seems to acknowledge this when Sang-hyun tells Tae-ju that their attraction wouldn’t exist without it. Thus, vampirism in this case adds a further dimension to an already forbidden love; still, it plays the familiar role of fueling the romance because Tae-ju is both horrified and intrigued by it. The film thankfully doesn’t just leave it as black and white as this, however, as Tae-ju’s true motives become questionable, and the nature of her love with Sang-hyun becomes increasingly complicated as the film wears on.
As a result, Thirst ends up feeling like a tale of ill-fated love first, and a vampire story second. It goes without saying that the performances of the principle characters drive the film and are responsible for much of its effectiveness. Song Kang-ho’s performance as Sang-hyun is especially effective as we watch him transition from a shy, reserved priest, to a blood-thirsty vampire. Kim Ok-bin’s performance complements Kang-ho’s well, as her character is essentially the exact opposite, which results in an odd chemistry that still ends up being believable. Watching the two interact and eventually degenerate brings a sense of tragedy to the drama because everything begins rather innocuously. The rest of the case is just as superb, particularly Kim Hae-sook, who plays the domineering mother-in law character; by the end of the film Hae-sook’s performance relies exclusively on body language and facial expressions, and it’s pulled off superbly and adds a fair amount of tension to the climax.
While the horror elements do rest on the back-burner for much of the film, there’s a fair amount to enjoy here. There are a few suspenseful scenes, but the film mostly relies on some well placed splatter, and much of it is handled in a very clinical manner. The symptoms of Emmanuel’s Disease are especially gruesome, as blood gushes and boils form on a victim’s skin. The vampire-related violence is of the usual variety: a lot of neck-biting and blood-sucking, though Sang-hyun does find a more dignified way of acquiring the red stuff by sucking it out of IV tubes in the hospital. The other usual vampire tropes are here as well, including allergy to sunlight and sleeping in coffin-like items, but they’re presented in quirky, modern contexts. In addition to all the vampirism, there’s even a scene featuring a ghost that makes use of the usual Asian supernatural imagery; this scene isn’t as random as you’d expect and adds to the overall strange tone of the film.
That said, it’s hard to nail down the tone of Thirst; it’s a very unique and even bizarre experience. It’s often a very playful film, fully of quirky characters and situations. However, Park Chan-wook is able to deftly slide between this playfulness and the more intense, dramatic moments. It’s easy to see the influence of Zola here, as there’s an overbearing sense of fatalism and a sense that things will systematically fall apart. The main characters’ paranoia is another Zola staple that’s given visual representation with the aforementioned ghost scene. The dramatic scenes between the two main characters are also impacting—when the two finally make love for the first time, it’s raw and without flair, but never feels exploitative; instead, the camera reveals the importance of the moment through the actors, which is generally the case with Thirst. Visually speaking, the direction here is fairly reserved: expect a fair share of long takes and long shots and very little flashy, fast-cutting editing. There are some dashes of interesting, stylish shots that convey a sense of wonder and whimsy when Sang-hyun reveals the breadth of a vampire’s abilities. This is not to say that the film is bland by any means, however, as the cinematography is beautiful throughout, which gives the film a very polished and slick look.
Quite frankly, Thirst is one of the best-crafted vampire tales to emerge in recent memory. While the story itself is far from inventive or new, Chan-wook places it in a package that feels fresh. The film also reveals Chan-wook’s great respect for a sub-genre that’s been put through the ringer over the years, as everything about the film feels extremely precise and expertly crafted. A vampire film that excels as a well-wrought and tight character drama as it does a horror film, Thirst lives up to its hype. Released last month on DVD by Universal, the film features a flawless video transfer, and the Korean 5.1 soundtrack is immersive and exhibits a fair amount of dynamic range. Sadly, there are no extras included on the disc, but it’s hard to imagine that Universal is holding out to double-dip on a niche title like this. At any rate, it’s a disc that’s still worthy of a purchase, as Thirst is just a downright excellent movie first and foremost, and a satisfying vampire film second. Buy it!
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