Reviewed by Evil Andy
Starring Kang-ho Song, Ok-vin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-kyun Shin
Directed by Chan-Wook Park
What is it about Chan-Wook Park’s films that allows them to be both loved by hardcore genre fans, but also to cross the divide and win major awards at highly reputable international film festivals? In the case of Thirst, which won the 2009 Jury Prize at Cannes, it’s clear that it is possible to make a movie containing all the popularly scorned elements of genre cinema (graphic sex, ultra-violence, etc.) while still garnering the praise of the film festival elite for its ability to interpret a famous literary work, confront difficult themes, and express all of the above in a poetic, distinctly individual style.
That said, Thirst has more in common with beloved vampire films like Near Dark, The Hunger, Cronos, and Let the Right One In than it does with typical prize-winning Cannes fare. It is a horror film through and through, and is probably gorier and more shocking than any of the films mentioned above, making its critical reception all the more surprising.
Thirst tells the tale of Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Host), a devoted Catholic priest, who travels to Africa to volunteer for an experiment in the hopes of helping to cure a virus that is ravaging Caucasian and Asian populations (surely a commentary on the state of drug research that favors the diseases of rich countries). The virus is incurable once contracted, and Sang-hyun views the risk as a test of his faith in God and the power of prayer. When he inevitably catches the disease, his body erupts in a mass of repulsive boils, and with a final gruesome vomiting of blood, he dies.
But not for long. This is a vampire film after all. At this point Thirst becomes a far more straightforward vampire film than you might expect. All the usual cliches are on display: a slow realization of the affliction, surprise at newfound powers, pilfering blood from hospitals, first exposure to sunlight, etc. Chan-wook Park’s stylistic flair is on display, and visually the various “vampire in training” set-pieces are distinctive, but not unique.
The second act of the film concerns the love affair between Sang-hyun and Tae-ju (newcomer Ok-vin Kim), who is unhappily married to her cousin Kang-woo (The Vengeance trilogy’s Ha-kyun Shin). The two have known each other since childhood, and it’s clear the attraction has been festering for some time. Thirst subverts the usual idea of a male vampire seducing a pliant damsel by having Tae-ju be the aggressor. However, it’s not long before she awakens Sang-hyun’s newly elevated vampire sensations, and he finds himself doing all kinds of things he would never have dreamed of in his previous life as a priest.
The most interesting and unique themes to be found in Thirst are the ones involving the concept of a Catholic priest vampire. The film tinkers with the notion of a vampire as a saint and healer, a chosen one of God. In addition, themes involving loss of faith, temptation, adultery, sin, and self-destruction are all touched upon. Unfortunately, few of the themes are investigated with any depth, as Chan-wook Park seems more interested in the next gory set-piece or burst of plot. I never thought I’d say it, but I found myself wanting less guts and a little more brains from Thirst!
It’s not that Thirst isn’t smart, it’s that it’s shallow. It has been observed that Thirst is in fact a literary adaptation of Emile Zola’s famous adultery gone wrong novel Therese Raquin. If you haven’t read it, there’s no disadvantage, but if you have, you’ll recognize the basic plot structure involving an unhappy marriage between kissing cousins, the weak husband, the murder plot, the ever-observant stroke victim mother-in-law, and the guilty adulterers who turn against each other. The problem is that Thirst doesn’t so much interpret Therese Raquin as it does simply lift its plot wholesale. There is no evolution of the story or themes from the novel, and the fact that Laurent/Sang-hyun is a vampire has no effect on the interpretation. Referencing a literary work may be a shortcut to critical acclaim, but in Thirst it comes across as lazy plagiarism.
But even if Thirst isn’t the second coming of the vampire film, it is a pretty decent horror movie. It tends towards the goofy and gory, rather than the dramatic and scary. You’ll see plasma-filled projectile vomit, spurting arteries, broken bones, and gallons and gallons of blood. Timed against the lady who sat beside me in the theatre and hid her face every time blood appeared onscreen, I’d estimate not 10 minutes goes by in Thirst without somebody spurting the red stuff.
And speaking of spurting, I’d be remiss to not mention the sex scenes in Thirst. As is befitting a film centering on an adulterous love affair, there is lots and lots of sex in the film. Just like the violence, the sex scenes are no holds barred affairs, containing awkward, sticky, perverse, and even tender moments. For what it’s worth, the film is famous for containing the first ever full frontal male nudity as star Kang-ho Song puts his vampire tackle on display near the end of the movie.
And maybe ‘vampire junk’ is the perfect way to sum up Thirst. It’s a highbrow, critically acclaimed movie that succeeds far more as a down and dirty horror movie than it does as an art film. Just don’t tell the Cannes people that it’s a horror film; they might want their statue back.
3 1/2 out of 5
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