Mar 13, 2011

Thirst (2009)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Writers: Park Chan-wook, Émile Zola (based upon the book “Thérèse Raquin”) and Jeong Seo-Gyeong
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-bin and Kim Hae-sook

The Plot: Priest Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) is devoted to his faith and seeks to help those that can not help themselves. Through his selflessness, he volunteers for a secret experiment that looks to find a cure for the highly contagious and horrifying EV virus. After a short time with this group of “lepers”, Sang-hyeon is infected with the disease and ultimately comes close to dying. When he does, he is given a blood transfusion that also has the blood of a vampire mixed in with it. Sang-hyeon, who is now a creature of the night, is the only survivor out of the 50 infected members. When released from the hospital he begins to volunteer at the hospital so that he can feast off of coma victims and blood bags as a non-violent form of quenching his thirst. While working at the hospital he meets up with an old friend who has now married Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), an old flame of his. Sang-hyeon, who has uncovered a weakness with refusing the needs of the flesh, begins an affair with Tae-ju. With Sang-hyeon’s new disease, will this romance ultimately turn tragic?

The Review
Although this may seem like blasphemy to admit, especially during the Korean cinema blogathon, but I have never considered myself a tremendous fan of director Park Chan-wook. It seems fairly obviously to say that he is the most well known of all working Korean film directors, perhaps the best known Korean filmmaker of all time at this point. He has reached heights that only a handful of other Asian filmmakers (such as Takashi Miike or Takeshi Kitano, you could fit Johnnie To or John Woo in here as well) have managed to escalate to. Park Chan-wook, however, is that one “big” Asian filmmaker that generally doesn’t float my boat. When he is good I usually “like” his work, at best. His films, for whatever reason, do not inspire me to write glowing reviews or profess him as a genius. I think he is a director who has made several good movies that have, for whatever reason, caught on spectacularly well with film geeks the world over. Thirst is his latest release, and has received a very split reception amongst film fans. Although some of Park’s most adamant fans have professed it as yet another work of genius, there has been a vocal group who have claimed it as pretentious and uneven. Despite my general bias against Park’s work, I will not take up the torch and claim Thirst to be an embarrassment. Instead, I think my opinion lies somewhere in the middle.

Although I used the word just a few moments ago, truly the best word that one could use in describing Thirst is: uneven. This is where nearly all of my issues with the film stems from, as it is a movie made up of select moments that work and some really bad ideas that ultimately should have been abandoned. I speak primarily about one sequence within the film that ultimately feels completely shoe-horned into the story. Although I prefer not to spoil the story for anyone, it deals with the guilt of one character completely demolishing their mental psyche. With this guilt comes… a ghost. A ghost that moves in on our story in such an awkward and bizarre manner that it adds an unnecessary degree of unintentional comedy. The sequence comes about so abruptly, that after watching this two hour film the one thing that stands out the most for me is this ten minute sequence. Park Chan-wook makes a very gutsy move to include this bizarre trip into the surreal, but it is a gutsy move that ultimately doesn’t pay off because it adds seemingly nothing towards the development of the film, other than confusion. Was the ghost really there? Was it just a manifestation of guilt for one, or both, lead characters? And an even larger burning question, did Song Kang-ho have sex with the ghost as it certainly appeared that he might have?

Okay, jokes aside, I have to contend that Thirst isn’t all bad. In fact, somewhere beneath the excess I have a good feeling that there is a “great” movie lying under that surface. As with any and all of Park Chan-wook’s work, it is a brilliantly made film for sure. It is a technical marvel with a polish that isn’t seen often. That is to be expected however, but the area where the film really excels in is its ability to grab the audience. If there’s any one thing I can say about the filmmaker, even when he makes a movie that I don’t particularly like, Park Chan-wook remains one of the most “watchable” filmmakers that I have ever seen. If you take ten minutes to sit down and watch any one of his films, chances are you’re going to find it hard to pull yourself away. I found the same addictive reaction with the last Park Chan-wook film I watched, which was Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. Despite it being a flawed film, it too includes enough interesting and inspired moments that its almost impossible to turn your head away from it. Thirst grabs you by the collar from the very start, with its bizarre rhythm and pacing during the opening moments as well as Song Kang-ho’s plight with the EV virus is grotesque. The use of music as texture during the introductory scenes, and the obtuse scene progression, is what really starts to make the audience wonder and ultimately stick with the movie. Park Chan-wook is brilliant when it comes to getting your attention and with Thirst he is as successful as ever in that regard.

The performances by the cast are universally fantastic, as one might expect. Song Kang-ho, who may be the world’s most famous Korean actor alongside Lee Byung-hun, is subtle in his role and it works well for a man so astute in his beliefs. Kim Ok-bin, however, stands out the most. Playing a diverse role that calls for her to be many things, her character remains an enigma throughout the film. Playing coy and deceptive throughout the entire course of events, you never know what to expect from her. Kim brings a slightly child-like naivete to the role when it comes time for her to reveal the darker side of her personality, and it works to perfection. When you put these two actors together, their chemistry dominates the screen. Park Chan-wook perfectly captures the erotic nature of a burgeoning relationship when these two characters first begin to share screen time together, and when they make love: things get steamy. The sex scenes are far from being the soft-focus, frilly music and slow motion shots that are often considered “erotic” by mainstream concepts. This is sex in a much more realistic light, with animalistic tendencies coming out and taking over. These scenes of course feature lots of biting and scratching, as one might expect from a tale of vampirism.

The Conclusion
For every good point, there is a bad one. For every bad point, there is a good one. Is your glass of microwaved blood half empty or half full? I suppose that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? Park Chan-wook has a loyal fanbase and I’m sure they were as pleased as punch with Thirst. Myself, not being an overly dramatic fan of his work, found it to be a mix of good and bad. I suppose in this world we all have a bias, in one form or another, but I am willing to admit that Park Chan-wook is a visionary filmmaker who knows how to control and manipulate his audience like few can. With Thirst, he commands the screen when it works and he dips his finger in so many concepts and ideas (from religion and conceptualized morality, to modern vampire mythology) that you have to sit back in awe. However, immediately after seeing the movie… all I could think about was that odd ten or twenty minute sequence featuring the ghost-character. A non-sequitur moment that was unnecessary, but ultimately speaks volumes about the film. I give it a solid three out of five rating. With a little editing, this very well could be a four out of five. An interesting twist on vampire-lore, Thirst is certainly worth checking out.