Column: From Strange and Distant Shores: Thirst

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By Orrin Grey

thirstThirst (2009). Director: Park Chan-wook. Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-bin. Country: South Korea.

If you’ve ever seen a Park Chan-wook film, then you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what to expect from his vampire love story Thirst. Like a lot of people, I was first introduced to Park when Oldboy, the middle film in his “vengeance trilogy”, became an international phenomenon. Oldboy impressed me, as did Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Park’s segment of the anthology horror film Three…Extremes, but none of them endeared themselves to me quite the way that Oldboy did for so many others.

Watching Thirst after having seen those other movies, it’s easy to see that it’s a Park Chan-wook picture. He leaves his fingerprints all over every aspect of his films, both visually and narratively. Thirst is often a beautiful movie, full of wonderfully-composed shots; awkward situations; absurd, dark humour; and sudden, gut-wrenching violence. Basically, everything I’d come to expect from Park’s oeuvre.

I’ve seen several people online take pains to point out that Thirst isn’t a horror film. And they’re probably right, though I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly what kind of film it is. Like a lot of the Korean horror I’ve seen, it switches drastically from touching scenes to horrific ones, from absurd comedy to shocking violence, often all in the same breath.

It’s unlikely to ever become the cause célèbre that Oldboy was. It’s overlong, comparatively predictable, and it lacks Oldboy‘s sucker-punch qualities. Like Park’s other films, it’s a movie I respected more than liked.

thirst2jpgThe story is all about the characters, the ways in which they change and the ways in which they don’t and the actions they’re driven to or to which they drive themselves. At the heart of it is a tragic love story between Sang-hyeon, a priest infected with vampirism (and unwanted celebrity) after he miraculously survives a deadly virus, and Tae-ju, the wife of one of Sang-hyeon’s childhood friends. But, of course, it’s far from a traditional love story, even one between a priest and a married woman, even one between a vampire and a human. Though Sang-hyeon is likable and struggles hard to be a good man, both characters are already broken when they meet and, although they seem to fit together perfectly, there’s still no place for the story to go that isn’t bad and bloody and dark.

Thirst is the kind of vampire movie where you could almost remove the vampirism entirely without doing much damage to the narrative, but that doesn’t mean that Park skimps in the vampire department. While Thirst is most preoccupied with its characters, the places where it works the best for me are the scenes in which Park deals with the nature and abilities of the vampires. Some of the best uses of superhuman strength and healing ever put on film are here (though the effects when the vampires jump around can be a little cringe-inducing). Watch especially for a scene involving Sang-hyeon and a corkscrew.

Just as it’s hard not to talk about Thirst in the context of Park’s filmography, it would also be hard not to compare it to 2008’s Let the Right One In. Both are awkward and fundamentally tragic love stories featuring vampires, and both show that the glut of uninspired vampire films in the U.S. don’t necessarily mean that the cinematic vampire is done. But while Thirst and Let the Right One In are both as far removed from clean romance (Twilight) as they are action movie tropes (Blade, Underworld), they’re also, despite their surface similarities, very different from one another. Both are traumatic stories featuring very real human drama, but Thirst differs drastically in tone. Its tragedy is leavened with absurdity and surrealism, and bears the unmistakable stamp of its origins and the techniques and obsessions of the filmmaker who crafted it.

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IFPColumn: From Strange and Distant Shores: Thirst