Review: THIRST

An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · August 1, 2009, 12:55 AM EDT

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on July 31, 2009, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

The promise of a vampire film directed and co-written by Park Chan-wook, the Korean filmmaker behind such big-screen transgressions as OldBoy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, would seem to be an unrestrained orgy of blood- and perhaps other sucking. There is indeed a good deal of sanguinary spillage in Thirst, as well as equally heavy sexual content, and moments of dark comedy, and religious undertones, all mixed into a stew that’s heavy on eye-opening moments and a bit short on emotional impact.

The frequent switches in tone make Thirst hard to get a handle on, and some streamlining might have helped with that, as well as the overlength that plagues so much Korean cinema (at 133 minutes, it could have easily been shaved down below the two-hour mark). But there’s quite a bit to recommend Thirst too, beginning with the lead performance by Song Kang-ho, who has been in a number of Park’s previous films but may be most recognizable to genre fans from his memorable starring turn in The Host. Here he plays Sang-hyeon, a priest who decides to serve humanity by taking part in test trials for a vaccine to treat a virulent new virus. He succumbs to the disease, and is revived with a transfusion—but somehow it turns him into a bloodsucker, with the familiar newfound strength and sensitivity to sunlight, plus the side effect of breaking out in pustules when he doesn’t get his plasma fix. In addition, this man of the cloth now has an enthusiasm for sins of the flesh.

He gets a chance to fully explore them thanks to a family he frequently visits for dinner. Old friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-gyun) has fallen ill and requires the constant care of his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), who nonetheless receives nothing but scorn from her spouse’s mother (Kim Hae-suk). An act of comforting the put-upon Tae-ju turns into a romantic clinch between her and Sang-hyeon, and the two are soon very active lovers. Tae-ju, in fact, is thrilled by her newfound freedom to break out from her formerly oppressed life, and displays no compunctions about taking the lives of others. She becomes so bloodthirsty, in fact, that it even gives Sang-hyeon pause; he’d prefer to come by his liquid diet in less violent ways (like sneaking drinks in hospitals), and a nasty clash between the couple soon becomes inevitable.

Song holds the movie’s center well, effectively conveying Sang-hyeon’s inner clash between his faith and the hunger (which might have made an even better title than Thirst if it wasn’t already spoken for) that compels him toward ungodly acts. These qualms play well off of Kim, who vividly essays the formerly docile woman coming out of her shell in the most brutal manner. The duo throw themselves into their vigorous and occasionally nasty sex scenes with no shyness about baring all, and the heat between them—both sexual and eventually confrontational—is palpable.

Indeed, Thirst proves a great deal stronger with the visceral than it does with the spiritual. The idea of a priest becoming a vampire suggests all kinds of dramatic and thematic theological possibilities, but Park and co-scripter Jeong Seo-gyeong seem to have become distracted during the writing process. Once the inherent irony has been taken care of, they evidently felt that was enough and decided to concentrate on melodrama and assorted explicit acts. When Park throws in black-humored bits, he at times seems to be doing so to amuse himself more than the audience, though there is a very funny sequence of morbidly deadpan comedy toward the film’s end. Visually, Thirst is as envelopingly squalid as the director’s previously celebrated films, with a nice contrast in the stark white interiors of the dwelling its two protagonists share in the second half (the better for the blood to show).

As Asian fang fare goes, Thirst is one of the more ambitious projects to come along (it’s certainly preferable to Blood: The Last Vampire), and if it doesn’t live up to all of its ambitions, it does demonstrate Park’s continuing penchant for and wholehearted commitment to confrontational material. The fact that he more successfully attacks the gut than the mind this time puts it a few notches below his previous fare, but what works is enough to remind why he’s a filmmaker always worth keeping an eye on.