DVD Review: Thirst
Thirst is a pretty cool – and very weird – vampire movie from South Korean director Chan-wook Park, who experienced something of a breakout with North American cult audiences with his 2003 revenge film, Old Boy, easily one of the best movies of the decade (it’s about a normal guy abducted and locked in a motel room for 15 years until he’s released and given only a few days to figure out why, a killer premise if ever there was one). Park is an incredibly stylish director, not in terms of filling his movies with quick edits or weird color filters, but there’s just an audacity to some of his stuff, in terms of both content and technical execution, that you just don’t see very often in movies from any part of the world. So the idea of Park tackling the vampire genre was a pretty tantalizing one.
The result is, as I mentioned, weird. I quite liked Thirst, though not as much as Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” (of which Old Boy is the second part; it’s a trilogy in theme only, sandwiched between the oppressively grim Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the phenomenal Lady Vengeance). The vampire movies I like the most tend to be the ones that do something a bit different with the concept, be it the apparent pre-adolescent bloodsucker in the brilliant Let the Right One In (read my review here), or the grimy outlaws of Near Dark (review here); the more traditionally “sexy and gothic” angle doesn’t really do it for me. And while Thirst includes typical vampire-movie trappings like religious imagery and sex – lust is really one of the driving forces of the entire plot – it’s about the furthest thing from the Twilight series one could imagine.
Thirst follows a South Korean priest named Sang-hyun (Korean superstar Song Kang-ho) who contracts a deadly disease after volunteering for a medical experiment. Through a quirk of fate, the blood transfusion he receives to save his life ends up transforming him into a vampire. But the disease, which manifests itself in the form of disgusting pustules all over his skin, as well as horrific bleeding, can only be kept at bay as long as Sang-hyun feeds on human blood. He starts off drinking the blood of a comatose patient at the hospital he frequents to perform last rites, but pretty soon things are spiraling out of his control. His miraculous recovery has turned him into a small-town celebrity, with strangers constantly trying to get him to use his miraculous healing powers on their own ailing loved ones, and this is how he reconnects with a childhood friend suffering from cancer. His friend recovers, and Sang-hyun is invited to join his weekly mahjong game, where he meets his friend’s unhappy wife, Tae-ju, who begs Sang-hyun to rescue her from her miserable life. And given that this is a vampire movie, I think we all know what that entails.
One of the things with Thirst that I noticed is that the pacing is very…different. It’s sort of slow – the film clocks in at about two hours and fifteen minutes – and has an almost episodic nature, as if the film can be divided into segments. While Sang-hyun is infected with vampirism fairly early on, Tae-ju doesn’t get turned until almost an hour and a half into the film, and it’s a major turning point, but it feels weird coming so late. But to be fair, it does feel like a natural progression of the story, and the scene where it finally happens is easily one of the film’s most powerful sequences.
Thirst is also, unlike Twilight, very much a film for adults. There’s a considerable amount of sex in the film – so much that I started to get a little bored once or twice waiting for the characters to put their clothes back on and move the story forward already – and the aforementioned pacing means that anyone looking for a dreamy vampire romance will probably spend much of Thirst’s running time bored, uncomfortable, or both.
Park’s movies (the ones I’ve seen at least) have a weird, darkly comic edge to them, and Thirst is no different. There’s quite a bit of comedy in this movie (granted, it’s mostly gallows humor), and a lot of it violent. When Tae-ju finally turns, she becomes a terror, and she and Sang-hyun have a few strange, violent and hilarious fights. Because they’re both immortal and super-strong, they can inflict horrible damage to each other, gruesomely breaking limbs and smashing faces into concrete during a lover’s spat.
One of the things I love about Park’s movies (well, his Vengeance Trilogy at least) is that he populates his movies with characters that are weird, and not altogether likeable. All the characters in Thirst, at some point, are shown to be selfish, and the film noir edge to his movies, Thirst included, comes from characters trying to do the right thing, but making bad decisions along the way. Maybe it’s just my misanthropic tendencies, but I like movies that aren’t necessarily about cut-and-dried good and evil, but rather reflect the reality that much of life is shades of gray. Sang-hyun’s arc in the movie is pretty incredible, but the fact that he’s a man of faith and starts off with an innate goodness that just about every other character in the movie lacks (even his fellow men of the cloth), and it makes his transformation even more impressive to watch as he’s corrupted by his newfound power, which he eventually comes to hate. Song Kang-ho is an excellent actor, and his performance as Sang-hyun is really something to watch.
Chan-wook Park is also a phenomenally talented director, visually, and Thirst is filled with amazing shots and sequences. There aren’t many scenes where Sang-hyun or Tae-ju use their vampire powers, but Park infuses them with a supernatural beauty. The sequence of the two of them leaping across rooftops at night is incredible, and the film’s final shot still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.
As much as Thirst is weird and, on the surface, a very different vampire movie, Park includes all of the hallmarks of the genre, albeit in off-kilter ways. It’s got themes of corruption and seduction, but unlike most vampire movies, it’s often unclear who’s seducing who (Sang-hyun, while a vampire – traditionally the one doing the seducing – is also a priest, and was celibate until his affair with Tae-ju, so the dynamic of their relationship is different from any other vampire movie I can think of). It’s still a bit too long and meandering, as if Park was trying too hard to incorporate a few too many twists and turns into the story, but Thirst is filled with solid performances, and has a wonderfully offbeat vibe and sense of humor that makes it utterly unlike any other vampire movie out there.
The Thirst DVD has nothing on it. Which is a shame, as the DVDs for Old Boy and Lady Vengeance are pretty excellent. Ah well.
Labels: DVD review, vampires