Thirst *** 1/2
Directed By: Chan-wook Park.
Written By: Chan-wook Park and Seo-Gyeong Jeong based on the novel by Emile Zola.
Starring: Kang-ho Song (Priest Sang-hyeon), Ok-vin Kim (Tae-joo), Hae-sook Kim (Lady Ra), Ha-kyun Shin (Kang-woo), In-hwan Park (Priest Noh), Dal-su Oh (Yeong-doo), Young-chang Song (Seung-dae), Mercedes Cabral (Evelyn), Eriq Ebouaney (Immanuel).
I wonder if Chan-wook Park has read the Twilight books. I wonder this because Thirst, his new film, bares some striking similarities to Stephanie Meyer’s books. It is a tale of obsessive love between a reluctant vampire and a human. The vampire here is a Priest, Sang-hyeon (the great Kang-ho Song) who with the best of intentions travels to Africa to take part in a test of a vaccine for a deadly new virus. All the other test patients die, but Sang does not. This is because one of the blood transfusions he receives is from a vampire, and that powerful blood fights off the disease. He becomes a sort of folk hero - the Bandaged Saint - and people want him to pray for their sick loved ones. What they do not know is in order to keep the disease in his blood in check, he needs to drink human blood. Since he works in a hospital, he has access to it. He takes blood from a coma patient he was friendly with. It does not hurt the patient, and it saves Sang from having to kill. It’s win-win.
That is until Sang reconnects with an old friend Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin), who now has cancer. Miraculously, after he prays from him, the cancer disappears. Sang is adopted into the family, where he starts spending more and more time. He does not much like Kang-woo - he is a weak, whiny little man - or his mother, Lady Ra (Hae-sook Kim), who is a cruel, spiteful lady. But he is drawn to Kang-woo’s wife Tae-joo (Ok-win Kim), a sad young woman. Like himself, she was abandoned by her family at a young age, when Lady Ra took her in. She has spent most of her life as essentially a slave for the family, and forced into a marriage that she never wanted. Sang cannot keep his eyes off of her, and when they meet on the street late one night, they share a connection. They immediately want each other, but Sang is stricken with guilt over his feelings. Whenever he gets an erection, he beats his himself with his flute. But much like his thirst for human blood, he can only control his sexual feelings for so long before he cannot take it anymore, and gives into his baser desires.
It is around this point where the focus of the movie shifts from Sang to Tae-joo, who is one of the most complex, fascinating female characters of the year. We feel sympathy for her almost immediately, as she after all has spent almost her entire life as a slave to this family. She does all the housework, the cooking and takes care of Kang-woo’s needs. When she takes out a pair of shears, and mimes killing her husband, we understand that urge. When she runs out on the street night after night, we get that to. She is drawn to Sang because as a Priest he is supposed to be unattainable. When he reveals his secret to her, she is at first horrified, but quickly gets over it. She is turned on even more by the idea of having sex with a vampire than she was by having sex with a priest. But soon having sex with him is not enough. She starts manipulating him to try and get out of her situation. And then she decides that maybe being a vampire might be fun. She does not have the control that Sang has though.
I mentioned Twilight off the top of the review, and it was something that I came back to time and again while watching Thirst. Twilight has a romantic view of being in love with a vampire. The erotic thrill, the self restraint and deprivation (Edward and Bella of course wait until after they are married before the have sex - and of course when they do it is mind blowing). But Thirst takes a much darker look. Sang, like Edward, falls in love with a woman, and is willing to give up everything for her. But unlike Bella, Tae-joo is not worth it. The kinky thrill becomes too much for her. The power she has over Sang, and then over everyone else when she becomes a vampire is too much for her. She feels invincible, and she goes at it full bore. Newcomer Ok-vin Kim gives one of the most mesmerizing performances of the year, alternating between sadness, glee, lust and sadistic pleasure. It is the type of performance that never gets nominated at the Oscars - but should.
Chan-wook Park has made a name for himself with extreme films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance - his loosely related “revenge trilogy”, which were all brutally violent to the point where no matter how acclaimed they were (and Oldboy was hugely acclaimed), no major studios would pick them up for distribution. Thirst, while just as bloody as the other films, is also a little more over the top than his other films. There is gallons of blood spilled in the film, but when it happens it is a strange mixture of erotic, comic and horrific - no where more so than in the scene where Sang turns Tae-joo into a vampire, as he forces her to suck blood from his wrist, while at the same time sucking blood from her. Or a scene where Tae-joo throws up an impossible amount of blood in a pure, white room. The sex scenes are equally over the top. While they do not require the acrobatics that say the scenes in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution did, they are not really realistic either. All these scenes are meant to shock, horrify and titillate the audience - and they succeed brilliantly.
Thirst is an odd film, but one that is never less than completely fascinating and involving. From one scene to the next, I honestly had no idea what was going to happen. While it may sound like a criticism to say that Thirst is a horror movie that is not really scary, in this case it isn’t. Thirst isn’t meant to be scary. It’s got much bigger issues on its mind.