Director: Park Chan-Wook
Screenplay: Seo-Gyeong Jeong and Chan-wook Park
Cast: Kang-ho Song (as Priest Sang-hyeon); Ok-bin Kim (as Tae-ju); Hae-suk Kim (as Lady Ra); Ha-kyun Shin (as Kang-woo); In-hwan Park (as Priest Noh)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #45
I've had a complicated relationship with the filmography of Park Chan-Wook; naturally as I got into cinema fully around 2008 at nineteen, Chan-Wook had climbed in status since the early 2000s in the West. While other directors and films also represented the best of the new wave of South Korean cinema at that time and shouldn't be ignored, Chan-Wook for many would've been see, (whether rightly or wrongly), as the one carrying the country on his shoulders like Atlas after the phenomenon reaction to Oldboy (2003). A lot of my ambivalence once was a childish attitude of distancing myself to films everyone else liked. Also Stoker (2013) was an awkward attempt at an American film which may have likely backfired, Chan-Wook returning to his homeland to make The Housemaid for 2016.
Curiously though, Thirst above any of his films stood out away from any disinterest I had in the director's career, practically bulletproof in my admiration of it. Thirst, asking myself why this is for this review, is an incredibly original take on the vampire myth still. Particularly, as Chan-Wook attested to in interviews at the time, there's little in terms of the Western take on the vampire in Korean legend, leaving him in the position of dealing with a foreign concept he can purposely manipulate. The transitions are kept. When priest Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) becomes a vampire, turned from a blood donation used to treat him in Africa after he volunteers to be infected by a dangerous virus, he cannot go out in the sunlight, having to improvise a coffin to sleep in, and can both fly and possesses superhuman strength. Where Thirst differs is how this figure of the vampire is wrapped around an emotionally complex plot involving morality, sexuality and a relationship in the middle, an erotic and violent melodrama that shifts tones as it goes along.
Having a Catholic priest as the central vampire certainly changes the dynamic, Thirst using this factor as part of the conflict nestled in Sang-hyeon's heart as a person when he becomes a blood drinker. A meek man, one side offers him liberation, freed to emote and fall in love with Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), a badly mistreated woman viewed as a step-daughter and a dog by matriarch Lady Ra (Hae-suk Kim) and foisted onto her son Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin), a sickly but also snivelling individual. However, in the best aspect of Thirst as a horror movie, these relationships are fraught with complexities, Sang-hyeon on a tightrope between his morality, mainly sustaining himself on the blood of a coma patient in the hospital he's working at and making sure not to kill them, and becoming a murderous and impulsive entity. The emotions between him and Tae-ju, who is a woman who has been poisoned by the terrible environment she's been raised in, causes their love to be fraught with extreme joys, sexually explicit passion that goes as far as biting and sucking each other's flesh lovingly, and extreme violence, becoming worse when she becomes a vampire and gladly takes delight in killing random bystanders to feed on them.
Like other Korean (and Asian) cinema, the film willingly changes in tone, between the utterly grim to even comedy, which in this case is a momentous reason why I love Thirst and held such reverence for it, both for changing the vampire story into something novel but also allowing its story to become more flexible. Over two hours long, it feels worthy of this length as it can allow its emotions for the character to be built over time and let the tonal shifts feel more natural as they play out, between the incredibly erotic scenes of the central couple's love to the most slapstick passage of the film in the middle, a figure in death haunting them by way of watery nightmares and being a comical nuisance at the worst times, able to work more when it becomes a small piece of the crux for a major shift in plot development. This also allows the shift in character's personalities to work far more as the emotional spectrum they can have can change with such variety, Sang-hyeon starting as a virginal and stoic figure and becoming more smouldering and charismatic as he "lets his hair loose" as a vampire, Tae-ju able to be more free even as a regular human being but exhibiting more chaotic and volatile aspects of herself created from a toxic upbringing and desire for revenge takes hold of the duo.
These tonal shifts, as Sang-hyeon's conflict with his religious beliefs clash with his Nosferatu existence and his love for Tae-ju, are helped by the luscious sheen of the film, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung giving both the moments of beauty and utter grotesque violence a fullness to them, many scenes in Lady Ra's home scored to old Korean pop songs for a whimsical irony. The acting as well for this to work is perfect, Kang-ho the right actor here; a man able to be the portly comedic sidekick, the bumbling pigheaded cop in Memories of Murder (2003) and a handsome dark eyed stranger here, Kang-ho is one of the best actors from any country of these last two decades, helped along the way in this film by how Ok-bin Kim as Tae-ju suits her role fittingly as well.
Returning back to Chan-Wook himself and his world, I find myself admiring how he's able to easily cross between tones with ease, all done in a heavily baroque directorial style that I regret having dismissed over these years, returning back to it with immense effect over myself relishing it. It's not just the obvious stylistic flourishes which stand out - the newly painted white walls of the vampire's lair being split with blood, the claustrophobic nature of Lady Ra's mah-jong table when Sang-hyeon and Tae-ju met again after their childhood - but details such as sound design, the use of music and the entire structure of what's on screen and heard all being carefully thought out. Returning back to his films with Thirst, I realise he wasn't the person who was style for the sake of style I dismissed him as but someone who is very careful in how he puts films together, even when he's flamboyant in many moments of the film with his camera movements and visceral content. It's interest, as the perfect example, how more important static camera shoots are in this film and how he's able to evoke as much for his gothic modern melodrama in them as he is the more kinetically dynamic moments. Plus, it's a godsend how well the CGI effects have dated, amazingly so, helpful in that they are used as much for the characters' personalities and the events taking place for them, as much emphasis on odder scenes as well as Sang-hyeon flying when, as he first starts to become a vampire biologically, he can even hear the dust mites on his own skin moving and other such quirks take place in the narrative.
This sense of creativity with accomplished skill was why Thirst stood resistance during a very childish, stubborn change of opinion on its director. It's a film that ends with a buddy comedic slapstick scene at the beach before becoming emotional devastating, the kind of unpredictable filmmaking which always stays fresh on each viewing. Rewatching it, I feel myself wanting to return back to all the Park Chan-Wook films I had watched many years before with renewed interest...