August 18, 2009
To continue the Park Chan-wook theme here: a review of his latest (and in my humble opinion, best) film. Ever since Oldboy, the Korean auteur’s films have been cause for excitement and rabid anticipation amongst us film nerds with strong stomachs. This was—and is—the case with Thirst as well, heightened by the fact that the world is currently undergoing a resurge of the vampire craze in a big way. I’m happy to report that, if absolutely nothing else, this is indeed a damn awesome vampire movie.
That in itself is the best thing about Thirst. For all its tangents and Catholic-guilt overtones (our leading man is a priest-turned-creature of the night played by Song Kang-ho), the movie is dripping with thrills, sex, and humour. I would go so far as to say it’s more comedy than drama, in fact, which is something the trailers and synopsis’ give no indication of. Considering Park’s last full-length, I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Okay was too light and the Sympathy films that flanked Oldboy were bogged down by their over-ambitiousness, Thirst’s perfect balance feels all the more remarkable. At two and a half hours, it’s not exactly a tight little package, but it uses the time perfectly and never once loses its way.
The aforementioned priest, Sang-hyeon, contracts vamp blood when trying to do some good by volunteering for a medical experiment to cure the EV virus, which manifests in skin boils and vomiting of blood, and eventually death. He’s the only one to survive the experiment because of the circumstances, which makes him a mythic, local hero that the townsfolk worship. Unfortunately, it seems the only way to keep the EV virus (and accompanying skin boils) at bay is to continue to drink human blood and avoid the sun. Loathe to kill anyone—that’s right, he’s one of those tortured vampires ala Angel, or Edward Cullen—Sang-hyeon feeds his “disease” in various amusing ways, including from the IV of a coma patient (his defence of this is that the man “loved to help the hungry!”). The movie gets a lot of mileage out of gags like this, or ones involving the superhuman strength inherited by vampires. You’d be surprised how many times a person carrying/throwing an obscenely heavy object, or snapping a broken bone back into place nonchalantly, can continue to be hilarious.
Soon enough, Sang-hyeon meets up with a buffoonish childhood friend and finds himself lusting after his wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). This is when things really kick off, and their relationship has to be one of the most delightful to watch in the genre, thanks in no small part to Kim. Her Tae-ju is so joyously evil, unapologetic and cunning, I could have continued to watch her wreak havoc for another couple of hours and not complained. Thirst is mostly just episodes of the pair gallivanting, Sang-hyeon trying to keep his Frankenstein in check, and Tae-ju always threatening to go just a little bit more off the rails than she already is. Buckets of blood later, is an absolutely stellar ending that’s funny, sad, and sweet all at once.
If you’re expecting a quiet meditation on the repressive nature of the Catholic religion, look elsewhere. By the same token, it’s not a scary movie either. The villains are our heroes, and we’re encouraged to laugh and clap along, gleefully—not be terrified by them. Bottom line, if you get a kick out of this sort of thing, you’ll have a rough time finding a movie that does it as pitch-perfectly as this one. See it on the big screen, if you can.