Thirst (South Korea, 2009)

When the news that Park Chan-wook would be making a vampire movie first started traveling around the film community, there was understandably much excitement. Viewers had already gotten a little taste of what he could do with the genre from Cut, his segment of 2004’s omnibus film Three Extremes that begins with a film crew shooting a scene for a horror production entitled Evil Live (Park’s original title for his vampire script). Beyond that “teaser” sequence, it was easy to imagine Park’s expertise with dark moral issues, sumptuous imagery and macabre motifs producing a truly magnificent vampire tale. The finished result, 2009’s Thirst, isn’t exactly that. While it certainly has Park Chan-wook’s signature all over it and contains many solid qualities, it is also a letdown in certain respects.

Thirst tells the story of Catholic priest Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), who goes to an African hospital and volunteers to become infected with a terrible virus to help discover a cure. He eventually passes away from the disease, but swiftly regains life after being given a transfusion of vampire blood. Fully recovered and endowed with incredible strength and senses but forced to keep away from the sun’s burning rays, Sang-hyun develops new habits that allow him to satisfy his new craving for blood without resorting to murder. By chance, he is reunited with two childhood acquaintances: the sickly Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) and his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), who both live with his mother, Mrs. Ra (Kim Hae-sook) above her clothing store. Sang-hyun and Tae-ju begin to have an affair that will challenge the priest’s conscience and pull them both into a downward spiral of lust, sin and guilt.

An interview with Sophie Moran for Electric Sheep magazine reveals that the first ideas Park came up with for Thirst were the story’s key vampire elements: the priest’s transformation from the disease and blood transfusion and his lover’s subsequent conversion. Material for the rest of the script came to him from Emile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, which provided the depressed young woman stifled by her imbecilic husband and his doting mother, the gloomy clothing shop where they live and work and the illicit affair that eventually leads to murder. The book is written in a purposefully detached style and conducts an insightful examination of human behavior, making it seem like just the thing that would attract Park.

While the integration of the vampire content into Zola’s narrative is handled well, Thirst’s potency is unfortunately reduced by a noticeable weakness. In terms of both content and tone, the film often feels too scattered and inconsistent, fitting in too many different things for one film to properly handle. This problem becomes most pronounced whenever Thirst delves too far into comedy. Park has used dark humor in his films before to great effect, and that skill still shines through in certain scenes, including one in which Sang-hyun, eager to try out his new “powers,” jumps from a window only to plunge downwards, landing on a parked car. But there are other moments that are so downright goofy and absurd that, when they appear alongside more serious scenes, only hurt the film. The most overt example of this is the appearance of Kang-woo’s ghost after he has been drowned by Sang-hyun and Tae-ju. Dripping wet with a big, dopey grin on his face, he is more ridiculous and annoying than sinister or dreadful – especially when he appears sandwiched between the two lovers as they try to have sex, staring straight at the camera. Truly this couldn’t have come from the same Park who used another wet ghost in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) with such subtlety, restraint and sadness.

Speaking of Mr. Vengeance, it is also disappointing to see familiar faces from Park’s previous films used less effectively in Thirst. Shin Ha-kyun, who was excellent as the deaf, green-haired Ryu in Mr. Vengeance, fulfills his requirements in playing the pathetic Kang-woo, but the broadness of the latter character is a noticeable step downwards from the former. Similarly, Song Kang-ho is decent as the fallen priest, but not as impressive as he was playing the gruff North Korean sergeant in Joint Security Area (2000) or the tormented corporate executive in Mr. Vengeance. But there is one truly great performance in Thirst from Kim Ok-bin as the alluring, dangerous Tae-ju. She is a compelling presence from her very first scene in which she coolly picks feathers from her down jacket and smirks in disgust while Sang-hyun offers a prayer to Kang-woo. She later expresses a variety of attitudes and emotions as her relationship with the priest intensifies: bold lust when she initially seduces him, panic when she first discovers his secret, childlike fascination with his superhuman capabilities and murderous glee when she herself becomes a vampire and unabashedly gives in to the animal urge to kill in order to survive. Her stormy love affair with Sang-hyun is easily the most intriguing component of the film, its obsessive and violent eroticism venturing into the same territory as Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Empire of Passion (1978). The later film is particularly worthy of comparison to Thirst, as both revolve around a crime carried out for lust’s sake and the ensuing suspicion that falls upon the guilty couple. Yet even this aspect of Park’s film is somewhat tainted by an off-putting tonal choice: as Sang-hyun and Tae-ju become more combative, their debates over right and wrong play out more in the vein of childish bickering than serious conflict. While it is fairly amusing to see the vampire couple’s relationship play out as a satirical comment on modern romance, it would have been more welcome in another film besides Thirst.

However, there are still other strong points to take away from the film. Chung Chung-hoon’s splendid cinematography offers up a grand visual feast, aided by Park’s continuing command of color schemes and motifs. Most of the film’s spaces are lit with strong neon and fluorescent lights, adding to the sustained dominance of cool whites, blues, greens and purples. Deviations from this look are pronounced and significant: soft yellow light from a streetlamp during a nighttime meeting between Tae-ju and Sang-hyun; a gorgeous collage of reds, pinks, oranges and yellows in the final scene and, of course, several scarlet splashes of blood. Also commendable is Park’s intense rendering of Sang-hyun’s hyper-sensory perspective as a newly converted vampire that allows him to see Tae-ju’s pulsing veins beneath her skin and hear the magnified sounds of his neighbors’ various activities.

Thirst almost definitely would have been a more satisfying effort had Park simply directed his energy towards a straight adaptation of Zola’s novel, shorn of all supernatural elements and focused primarily on the characters’ innermost desires and conflicts. The portions that did end up getting carried over from late 19th-century France to 21st-century Korea (like the weekly domino games in the shop, switched to mahjong in the film) are quite fascinating, bringing to mind a similar West-to-East crossover attempted by Akira Kurosawa in his 1951 adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Additionally, it would be a relief to see Park dial down his indulgent stylistic tendencies a notch and return to the hard, finely calibrated realism that gives Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance a strong case for being his finest work to date. But as it currently exists, Thirst still manages to satisfy with at least some of the many things Park brings to the table in his typically confrontational, elaborate manner.

Marc Saint-Cyr

Marc Saint-Cyr was a guest host on the VCinema podcast’s coverage of the Shinsedai Cinema Fest 2010 and a guest reviewer on our Toronto International Film Festival 2010 episode. He is a staff writer for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow. He has also written for Row Three, Midnight Eye and the Directory of World Cinema: Japan published by Intellect.  He runs his own blog, Subtitle Literate.