Film Reviews


By • Sep 24th, 2009 •

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For some reason, as I’m sure you are aware, vampires are having a cultural comeback. Vampires became popular in the 80’s largely due to the AIDS crisis, and were more targeted towards adults (Anne Rice as opposed to Stephanie Meyer). Whereas with the TWILIGHT SERIES and CW’s new show THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, the general audience is made up of teenagers. But TRUE BLOOD and 2008’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN are also hits among adults – so the question remains, ‘why now are vampires more popular than ever?’ I don’t know the answer, and I’m not sure if it takes time in order to look back and understand its relevance. It is well known that during times of economic stress people seek out escapism with anything fantastic. It could be that vampires just worked and producers are squeezing all they can out of the genre. Needless to say, certain people are becoming annoyed with this recent trend (myself included) and the thought of another vampire movie can be unappealing to say the least. But leave it to Park Chan-Wook to breath new life into what is quickly becoming a tired genre.

THIRST is about a priest, Sang Hyeon (Song Kang-Ho from THE HOST) who is so concerned with helping others that he volunteers to be a lab rat for an experimental vaccine to cure a deadly disease infecting thousands in Africa. The vaccine fails, and he becomes victim to the disease. He is given a blood transfusion in a desperate attempt to save his life, and it works! The only problem is this blood causes him to return back to life as a vampire. He doesn’t realize this at first, only that he has a thirst for human blood. When malnourished the blisters from the disease start to form again on his skin, and he once again is close to death. He realizes he needs the blood to stay alive. As you probably already realized, THIRST treats Vampires as a disease and has more in common with the AIDS-relevant vampires than with the mythic TWILIGHT/TRUE BLOOD vamps.

It is not explained what was wrong with the blood, or if people were aware of the existence of vampires in the past. Sang Hyeon uses the term vampire, but it is never established whether he is aware of this term because of myth and pop culture, or their actual existence in reality. Nevertheless THIRST does not play by your typical vampire rules. There are no silly cliché’s here. They still need to sleep during the day, and they do possess a superhuman strength (and the ability to leap through the air) but there are no fangs or mention of garlic. Nor are they afraid of crosses (remember, he is a man of the cloth).

Sang Hyeon returns to Korea only to be hailed as a saint, and he is mobbed by people who want him to heal them and their sick relatives. He is taken in by Lady Ra, who wants him to heal her imbecile son, Kang-Woo, who she says has cancer.

Kang-woo is married to Tae-Joo (the incredibly talented, not to mention breathtakingly beautiful, Ok-Vin Kim. Where has this woman been all my life??) She is mistreated by Lady Ra and is forced to be a slave in her marriage where she acts as full-time nurse to Tae-Joo.

Sang Hyeon takes an immediate liking to Tae-Joo, but it is only when he smells her menstrual blood that he can no longer restrain his desires.

This is actually where the film’s true plot starts. Everything mentioned beforehand is just setup. Most people’s problems with THIRST are in it’s pacing. Not only is the setup long, but I’ve heard others complain that the film’s final act feels like an extra act added to a film that could have ended. I actually agree with these comments but don’t think of them as detrimental. Sure, the film could have ended before the final act (and the first time I saw it I was predicting it to do so), but the final act only layers an already complex human drama, therefore making it a much more interesting film. At 133 minutes THIRST does feel long, but I personally prefer a film that is rich in ideas rather than one that is conventionally paced. It was only after watching it a second time (which I not only recommend, but urge you to do no matter what your initial feelings might be) that I started to pick apart each scene and ask if it needed to be there. The answer was always yes. Each scene is important to the overall film. It may not always move the story forward, but be sure it is doing something else.

The rest of the review will include spoilers. I am usually reluctant to do this, but I feel THIRST is such a great film that it requires a more in-depth review than the average thumbs up / thumbs down routine.

Tae-Joo tells Sang-Hyeon that Kang-Woo abuses her, and even has the (self inflicted) wounds to prove it. The three of them take a trip on a boat in a plot to murder him. Interestingly enough Park Chan-Wook has mentioned in interviews that his main inspiration for THIRST was not of the vampire genre at all, rather a 19th century novel by Emile Zola called “Therese Raquin”, about a woman tapped in a bad marriage, who arranges with a lover the murder of her husband. I never read the book, but the subplot this inspired, and the manifestation of their guilt after the deed is done is portrayed quite brilliantly in the film, and could be my favorite segment. Park’s films, as cinematic as they are (he is an extremely visual filmmaker who rarely needs dialogue to explain what is happening) have always reminded me of classic literature, especially OLDBOY (although based on a Manga) which feels like a modern Greek Tragedy.

Sang-Hyeon finally turns Tae-Joo into a vampire (also giving her the deadly virus). This is the final act mentioned previously. From here on the film becomes about the repression of its two main characters. Sang-Hyeon’s self imposed repression, and his guilty conscience as opposed to Tae-Joo’s externally imposed repression and how the two lovers ideals eventually clash. Sang-Hyeon, up until this point, has been “getting his fill” by taking just the right amount of blood from comatose people at the hospital (he drinks directly from the I.V.). He is not hurting the patients by doing so, and says there is plenty for the both of them. Tae-Joo thinks there is no fun in this method, and kills for her blood. She (an atheist) doesn’t believe this is a sin, rather a way of life (“is it a sin for the fox to kill the sheep?” she says).

Fortunately, (I think because of the vampire craze) THIRST is getting a wider release than I predicted. It is playing in various multiplexes and not only in major cities. THIRST won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year tied with FISH TANK. Apparently the award was met with a mixture of applause and boos from the crowd, which always seems to be the rumor at Cannes and I personally find the concept of booing extremely rude and immature no matter how much you dislike a film. But I digress. What upsets me is that THIRST is not a candidate for this years Academy Awards. Instead South Korea picked MOTHER. I haven’t seen this film, but I’m sure its more Oscar “appropriate”. THIRST has a strong R rating for violence and sex. It actually has one of the best sex scenes I can remember in recent history. Even better than LUST CAUTION, which got an NC-17 for theirs. As much as I love THIRST, I wouldn’t expect it to be Oscar-bait in any country, It is far too extreme for that, but I would love for Ok-Vin Kim to get a nod. I have yet to see a female performance more worthy this year. It is also my pick for best cinematography.

It is easy to dismiss Park as a director whose intention is to shock. He certainly has a knack for violence. Fellow violent filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has spoken of his admiration of Park’s work. Although THIRST is certainly gory, I do not think it is gratuitous (it’s a vampire movie!!). Like Tarantino, (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is another one of my favorite films this year) Park’s films have a pulpy quality to them, and they manage to deliver the joys of the genre (violence being one of them), but at the same time they go above and beyond the genre conventions thus creating something that is truly original. I almost hesitate to call THIRST a vampire film, because with the stigma that is attached, I feel it would be selling it short. It is a film wherein the main characters are vampires, but they are also painfully human, and that’s what you are ultimately left with.

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One Response »

  1. Just wanted to say this is a brilliant review and I completely agree with everything you’ve said in this review.

    I’ve only seen the film once so far as I saw it at a preview here in the UK but I hope to go see it again once it opens up nationwide and possibly import the DVD from America until the blu-ray release over here.

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