137 Minutes // South Korea // CJ Entertainment
dir. Chan-wook Park
Tuesday, August 11th, 2009 – AMC Yonge and Dundas
starring: Kang-ho Song & Ok-vin Kim
After the vampire sub-genre being revived last year through True Blood, Let the Right One In and Twilight, acclaimed South Korean auteur Chan-wook Park sinks his teeth in the morose world of the undead. Similar to 28 Days Later, Chan-wook Park along with frequent collaborator Seo-Gyeong Jeong have twisted the expected and boring path that leads into a person becoming a mythical being. Instead of Boyle’s zombies, Park and Jeong have devised a witty and cogent take on how one could become a vampire.
Rather than being revived from the dead or having demons rumble around your tired body, 40-year old Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) finds himself dying of a skin cancer-like disease called DV. As a priest, he is devout to his faith, so when he learns about an experiment in Africa being done in hopes of finding a cure for this mysterious, but lethal disease, the Priest Sang-hyeon goes and sacrifices himself for the greater good. When the blood transfusion fails due to tainted blood, Sang-hyeon dies in a gruesome and bloody mess. Just after being pronounced dead, Sang-hyeon is resurrected and goes back to South Korea where his life and followers are. Although not understanding the reasons or conditions of this change, Sang-hyeon is preoccupied, but still faithful to Catholicism.
One evening at Lady Ra’s (Hae-sook Kim) and her son Kang-woo’s (Ha-kyun Shin) home, Priest Sang-hyeon arrives to play some Mahjong with a few other friends. Amidst the semi-philosophical discussion, a heated romance begins to brew between the house’s slave girl Tae-ju (Ok-vin Kim) and the Priest, though only noticeable by the two. After her husband, an ill Kang-woo begins to toss her tiny frame around demanding things, Tae-ju falls to the floor; everyone at the table laughs direly apart from the Priest, who sends a compassionate look and a helpful hand off the floor her way.
After the people say their goodbyes, Sang-hyeon heads home. In a pragmatic and throbbing scene, the viewer begins to experience the dreadful mental strain absorbing Sang-hyeon. Prospects of a possible romance with a beautiful, but broken young woman – taboo to his teachings and faith – and lusting for blood, despite his attempts at dispelling this urge, cause the Priest to question his faith and purpose in the world. When he finishes beating himself in the inner thigh to suppress the sexual urges, he heads to his bathroom and passes out after a self-induced transgressive panic. He is awoken the next morning by the sun peeking through his small bathroom window, which causes his skin to burn and his puss-filled sores to reemerge on his body. This is where Sang-hyeon realizes he desperately needs blood to keep healthy.
On the other side of the story, Tae-ju is lonesome, as well as depressed. She runs outside barefooted nightly to enjoy the few moments of freedom allowed to her, to get a whiff of the breathable air not found in the cell she calls her room. On one fateful night, she spots a man walking around the streets. Not knowing who he is, she begins to run in fear for her life, but the man catches up to her, picks her up and puts her in his shoes. It’s Sang-hyeon and from here on out, she becomes more confident in life – employing her new courage at any opportune time.
Together Tae-ju and Sang-hyeon redefine the romantic formula. The frenzied and uninhibited young woman and the calm, but dire man make for a unique mix. There are several moments that bring them closer together – causing Sang-hyeon’s spiritual grip ever closer to a release. Through painstaking murder, uncoordinated sexual misdeeds, Sang-hyeon showing Tae-ju his new abilities in a romantically rhythmic way and a scene I like to call The Kiss of Life, Sang-hyeon and Tae-ju’s relationship is pure poetry.
Nowadays, popular horror films need to be atmospheric and cannot solely rely on plot if they want to engage their audience. It’s sad, but it’s true – if 1968’s Night of the Living Dead was released today, it would get a poor box office return and even poorer word of mouth do to its inhibition. In Thirst it appeared that Chan-wook Park was headed in that direction; shooting for a very subtle horror film in the first act – never imbuing the story with generic scares. As the story gains momentum, Park’s intentions become less latent. His aim – to create silent tension and make for an uneasy experience – demands plenty of patience from his audience with the soft buildup. However, for the enduring viewer this tactical approach is a majestic present – for the impatient horror fan, this will be a grating gift from hell. Containing the same neo-realistic sensation that is found in Park’s 2003 film Oldboy, the film’s approach at horror touches purposeful absurdity as the two ingredients – brutal violence and a deft lens – do not mix well for scares.
Often playing on good vs. evil (light vs. dark), Thirst’s metaphorical intentions tend to be underplayed. With a quiet, but firm grip on the whole stem cell debate – both showing the pros and cons intelligently – that can be easily substituted for the vampire portions is a perturbing glance at a potential moral lapse in mankind. Greed becomes more controlling, the urge for perfect health become more impetuous and it seems that only those with strong morals will prevail a calmer head. This writing is often philosophical, but never confrontational about what its trying to teach.
Due to a variety of misinformed critics comparing Let the Right One In to Thirst for two obvious reasons (vampires + foreign), but no meaningful connections, lets clarify what both have so those expecting a Korean Let the Right One In. For one, this film is completely dry – almost whimsical in manner. Thirst shows the penitent mentality of a vampire who inevitably has an actual encounter with evil in his hopes of rekindling his love for religion – Let the Right One In isn’t at all remorseful and speaks a singular volume about the vampire mindset. The distinctions are plentiful, but people will always grasp for the similarities in order to satisfy some intellectual need.
Never once thinning the plot to give into convention, Park’s artistic motives are far gutsier than your average B-horror flick contains guts. He is entirely immersed in telling the story of one man’s conflicted morality who just happens to be a vampire as opposed to the belligerent bloodfest vampire fans are accustom to.
Thirst is as agile paced as any film you’ll see. Clocking in at 137 minutes, one will be hard-pressed to find themselves unengaged. Whether it be the erotic momentum that thrusts forward an odd sexual perspective; the enlightened and graceful cinematography; as organized, varied and excellent an ensemble you’ll see all year; the blunt, but humorous violence; or the copious amounts of invigorating wit that’s spread across the minimalist story, Thirst will satisfy those with the virtue of patience. [10/10]