Oh my God, male frontal nudity!
Studio: CJ Entertainment
by Face - August 17, 2009
Park Chan Wook’s Thirst poses a simple, yet conspicuously intriguing premise: what would happen if a priest... became a vampire? How would he survive with the moral albatross of sin and desire? Would his relationship with God be forever extinguished? Would he capitulate to the salacious... thirst? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the obvious pun, excuse me.)
For the most part, these themes are appropriately explored. But at times - especially during the exceedingly operatic third act - the film veers off course, gallivanting into hobbling territory.
The story begins with Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) as a priest, who invests his free time at a local hospital. He is recognized for his unshakable faith. Yet, he carries with him a great sadness. Influenced by the gloomy realities of his existence, he sacrifices himself for an experimental treatment of a new virus, called EV. The virus kills him, but through a miraculous blood transfusion, he returns to life. However, an unexpected side effect presents itself: he has been transformed into a vampire. The only way he can continue to counteract the deadly disease is through the consumption of human blood.
News of his recovery spreads quickly, and the parishioners of his congregation immediately believe he obtains an otherworldly gift of healing. Among these is an old childhood friend, Kang-woo (Sin Ha-gyun). Still struggling with his unwelcome carnal desires - not to mention newfound superpowers - he abruptly falls in love with Kang-woo’s despondent wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), living under the tyrannical rule of her despotic mother-in-law.
Thirst has been a remarkable hit in Korea this year - but not without a degree of controversy. It's reportedly the first Korean film to ever feature full frontal male nudity from its star (on Song Kang-ho’s part). More importantly, the critical response and fan reactions have not been unanimously positive, as in previous Park films. Yet, since May, it has amassed over 2.2 million individual ticket sales. Internationally, it has also received recognition. At Cannes, it won the coveted jury prize. Not quite up to par with Oldboy, but impressive nonetheless. However, it seems as though its appeal as an export is dwindling. The latest news reports indicate Bong Joon-ho’s film, Mother, will be Korea’s entry into the Academy Awards.
It’s a shame because despite my introductory remarks, Thirst is a great film. As it unforgivingly tears apart the pontifical Roman Catholic relationship, it is thematically ferocious. The performances are across the board outstanding. Song Kang Ho is outright incapable of a lackluster interpretation. He is quiet and haunting; emotionally tangled and spiritually perturbed. His co-star, Kim Ok-Bin is equally arresting, but there are a few problems with the casting choice.
She is very young - just 23 years old. Her demeanor and physical appearance seem to lack some of the tormented visage that would come from a lifetime of debasement. I would have preferred Jeon Do-yeon or at least a comparable actress from a similar age group.
However, Park’s directing is predictably focused. He explores familiar moral territory, and it is remarkably effective. I was fascinated by the dilemma’s Sang-hyun faced, and intrigued by the doomed relationships he developed. Yet, the latter portion of the film is somewhat derailed by a fixation on the relationship with Tae-ju. She develops a foreseeable predilection for her vampire powers, and Park is all too quick to converge his sights upon them. Yet, Thirst is a thrilling movie. It's a refreshing, licentious concoction of ensanguined horror, hypnotic drama and rhythmically arranged burlesque moments.
But... what is it about vampires that intrigues us? Is it that their motivations are beyond carnal? Is it that they act out of a necessity for survival? I am not quite sure. However, Park Chan-wook seems to be suggesting that the link is visceral... an unquenchable thirst.
* * * 1/2 (Quite Good)
Updated: August 17, 2009