Movies · Reviews

Foreign Objects: Thirst (South Korea)

By  · Published on August 19th, 2009

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…

South Korea!

Those of you who read this review column on a regular basis (Hi mom!) may have noticed a slight gap in it’s weekly schedule… basically it’s been absent for the past few weeks. I’d like to say it’s due simply to me being on a month-long vacation or maybe that it’s Cole Abaius’ fault somehow, but unfortunately the truth is much more disturbing. Internationally acclaimed director Park Chan-wook had me kidnapped, held captive for a month, and then released earlier this week with a five-day deadline to figure out why. Unbelievable I know, but true… no? Ok damnit. I’m a slacker.

I did meet Park over the last month though, and I even had the immense pleasure of speaking with him about his new film, Thirst… which coincidentally enough is this week’s foreign flick up for review. (Strange how that works.) The most common two-word description of Thirst appears to be ‘vampire movie’ although my two-word description of choice would be ‘fucked up.’ And I mean that in the best possible way. Vampires are enjoying a bit of a cinematic renaissance these days with “True Blood” rocking HBO’s Sunday night, the Twilight films stinking up the multiplex, and at least one unexpected gem from Sweden hitting theaters last year as well. I don’t normally count myself as a fan of vampire movies… there are a handful of great ones but most examples of the genre leave me bored with the characters and conventions. But a vampire movie from the director of Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance? Yes please…

Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) is a priest in search of something more to offer the people around him. He spends his days walking the quiet hospital halls and taking confession from the dying with nothing to offer them aside from empty assurances and platitudes. Hoping to give something more to the sick and needy of the world, he volunteers to take part in a potentially dangerous experiment searching for a cure to a disease called the Emmanuel Virus. (Sure he could have just built a soup kitchen or maybe joined Habitat for Humanity, but no one’s ever made it into heaven being a carpenter.) Every other participant has died a painful death… and Sang-hyeon is no different. But no sooner do the doctors pronounce him dead then he begins speaking from beneath the death shroud. Hailed as a miracle from God, Sang-hyeon is praised as a healer and soon develops followers hoping for his touch. His interests lay elsewhere though, most notably in his body’s regenerative powers, his increased strength and agility, and in his growing attraction to Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin), the wife of an old school friend. Oh, and he also has a strong and irresistible craving for blood.

This is most definitely a vampire movie from the director of Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and that distinction is the key to Thirst’s success as a wildly inventive and constantly entertaining addition to the genre. I’m deliberately trying to keep much of the plot specifics to a minimum because one of the many joys of Park’s new film is it’s unpredictable nature. Only the minimum number of typical vampire film traits are present here with Park doing away with most of them via common sense (why would a Catholic priest fear a crucifix?) or by simply ignoring them all together (no garlic, home entry invitations, or stakes through the heart here). He retains only what’s necessary to tell his story including the detrimental effect of sunlight, the thirst for blood, and the vampires increased desire for the visceral. These trappings are combined with a loose retelling of “Therese Raquine”, Emile Zola’s novel of adultery, romance, and murder, and then infused with Park’s particular brand of brutality, comedy, and gleeful madness. It’s flawed, but it’s also brilliant and one of the year’s best films.

Park’s identifiable visual style is on full display here with help from cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon. Characters are initially blended with the neutral earth-tones around them, but as changes occur and desires are fed they take on bright and sharp colors along with their surroundings. As Sang-hyeon’s actions grow darker he paints their apartment white from floor to ceiling. It’s stark at first but provides the perfect canvas for the bloodletting that follows. One very striking scene involves Tae-joo’s first experience with her vampire savior as he leaps from the rooftops with her in his arms. Instead of the typical wide shot showing the two of them jumping around (which we actually get later in a different context), the camera stays focused on her face. As they fly through the air, her hair blowing wildly with each rise and fall, we see in Tae-joo’s expression her experiencing joy and wonder for possibly the first time. It’s a beautifully shot scene that not only brings the characters closer together but brings us closer to them as well.

The sounds in Park’s film are equally as important and well-done as the striking visuals, and this includes both the music and the effects. The score by frequent collaborator Jo Young-wook is a beautiful melding of string and wind instruments and often built from Bach’s Cantata BWV 82A. It soars and soothes in appropriate measure. The sound effects are sharp and distinct throughout, but most noticeable during the multiple sucking scenes. And by sucking I mean lips on lips, lips on flesh, lips all over the damn place slurping and sucking and licking with messy abandon. It’s comical at times and sensual at others, but it always underscores the carnal connection between Sang-hyeon’s vampire need for blood and human need for physical companionship. Both desires are equally important… and at times equally sloppy.

Park’s technical and stylistic proficiencies are always things of beauty, but he doesn’t get enough credit for the work he does with his actors. Song is one of South Korea’s biggest actors for good reason as he’s equally comfortable and capable in both comedic and serious roles. From The Quiet Family to Shiri to The Good The Bad The Weird, Song has shown incredible heart and soul with his characters and quickly become an audience favorite. His work with Park (six films and counting now) has brought him some of his darkest roles (see Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), but Song has consistently found and revealed the humanity within each time. Here Song is asked to bring to life a character torn equally between desire and guilt, a man who so badly wants to do right but finds himself physically unable, and he succeeds brilliantly. Kim’s role here as a depressed wife looking for adulterous salvation from her local vampiric priest is a far cry from her role in the brightly comedic Dasepo Naughty Girls. She inhabits the difficult role of Tae-joo fully and creates a complex woman who can be both victim and aggressor. She asks the audience to pity, love, despise, and forgive her, and we can’t help but respond willingly. It helps that Kim’s Tae-joo is also dangerous, sexy, and irresistible. The supporting roles are cast with equally strong performers including Shin Ha-kyun as Tae-joo’s childish and unappreciative husband and Kim Hae-sook as the demanding mother-in-law who soon finds herself an unwilling witness to sins of, in, and on the flesh.

A stretch in the middle devoid of growth is the most obvious target, but there’s too much comedy and character there to cut. There are also a handful of effects shots that would have benefited from more time or more money (or both). They’re not bad per se… a wobbly, wire-based flying scene and some unimpressive CGI stand out… but they’re definitely visible. Park also has a habit of bypassing detailed explanation in favor of all that comes after. As with Oh Dae-su’s fifteen-year imprisonment in Old Boy that left several logistical questions unanswered, Thirst’s viral experiment that turns Sang-hyeon into a bloodsucking man of god is glossed over with only the barest of explanations. The blood transfusion probably could have been worked in more organically and simply, although the risk would be losing the weight of Sang-hyeon’s selfless act.

Thirst will invariably be held up against the perceived high standard of Old Boy, and in that head-to-head battle it will most likely lose. The more accurate comparison in Park’s oeuvre would be to his third film in the Vengeance trilogy, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. Like that film, Thirst is a delicious mash-up of style, wit, blood, and sudden violence that blends the tragic and the comic with expert skill. That constantly threatening transition from dark to light, serious to humorous, may be too unsettling for viewers unfamiliar with Park’s films, but if you’ve seen even a handful of Korean films you should already be aware of their penchant for left-field tonal shifts. Park’s use of sudden tonal changes here may not always be successful, but at least they’re never boring.

Last year saw both a low and high point in vampire cinema with Twilight and Let The Right One In. This year looks to repeat the pattern with New Moon and Thirst. (Although aside from quality and the inclusion of vampires, Thirst has absolutely nothing in common with last year’s Swedish chiller.) Park’s new film is the vampire love story that Twilight only wishes it could be… if Twilight had balls (or balls with hair on them anyway). It’s a sexy, brutal, funny, and beautiful adult film that finds director Park Chan-wook back to form after the the curious detour that was I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Okay. Like his countryman Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host), Park has received numerous offers to come to Hollywood. Looking at the quality and consistency of their film resumes in their native country I hope they’ll both continue to say ‘no thanks’ for many years to come.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.