Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-bin, Kim Hae-suk
Plot: A failed medical experiment turns a man of faith into a vampire.
Genre: Drama / Horror
Awards: Won Jury Prize (Cannes).
Rating: R21 for graphic bloody violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content, nudity and language.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
One of the leading contemporary Asian film auteurs, Park Chan-wook has been a name synonymous with ‘revenge’. Most well-known for films such as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) which make up his unofficial ‘vengeance’ trilogy, Park has now established himself not only as a film festival favorite, but also arguably the most highly-rated Korean filmmaker of the last decade.
Winning the Jury Prize at Cannes, Park’s new picture, Thirst, is distinctive in style and form, albeit in a morbid kind of way. It is hard to find an apt description to Park’s style, but in Thirst I would say it is close to a cross between Cronenbergian grotesqueness and Lynchian weirdness. And if I may add, a tinge of Kubrickian coldness as well. The film centers on a Catholic priest, Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), who volunteers his body for a medical experiment to find a cure for a rare, deadly disease. He miraculously survives but he turns into a vampire as a result.
Thirst, mind you, is not a genre horror film. Similar to Tomas Alfredson’s acclaimed Swedish vampire romance Let the Right One In (2008), Park’s film is predominantly a drama with few elements of horror. It touches on the human flaw of lust, or more precisely, the sin of lust at the expense of religious faith. Sang-hyeon’s faith is tested to the limit after he turns into a vampire. He then suffers from an identity crisis. Is he a respected priest as known by the public, a savior of sorts? Or is he a bloodsucking creature whose unearthly desires continue to overwhelm him?
A shy, attractive woman, Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin) with an abusive husband and an overbearing landlord lady becomes the target of Sang-hyeon’s sexual passion. In the film’s most erotically-charged scene, they have sex in a hospital ward late at night next to a comatose patient. The narrative does not give the viewer an easy way out; it is as predictable as next month’s weather. As the film proceeds, images begin to distort perceptions of characters and their actions. As a matter of fact, things get more bewildering, violent, and macabre. This is where comparisons with Cronenberg and Lynch come in. The violence and gore are as unsettling as they get, but Park, to his credit, makes them a pleasurable indulgence.
The performances of the cast are generally good, though I have to single out Kim who turns in a remarkable display of vulnerability and later, becomes convincingly psychotic. There are occasional uses of CGI with which Park shows mastery of including eye-popping scenes of vampires leaping from roof to roof. Camera movement in Thirst is outstanding with the use of outrageous shooting angles and audacious point-of-view shots. The final few shots are haunting but they retain a sense of poetic fatalism inspired by ‘30s French cinema.
In this truly brilliant film, Park has delivered a stunningly original take on the traditional vampire horror sub-genre. Strange and beautiful, Thirst ought to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film come next January.