South Korea, 2009
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 11 August 2009
Source 35mm print
It actually begins with hunger. A man whose health is failing recalls sharing a sponge cake with two strangers many years ago. “Do you think God will remember that?” he asks the priest at his bedside. It’s a question both funny and sad, and the anxieties attached to it reverberate throughout Thirst, director Chan-wook Park’s exhilarating, exhausting vampire story. Sang-hyun – the dedicated priest (and our nominal hero) seen providing comfort to the ill in that opening scene – grapples with God and guilt, selflessness and its opposite, and yes, hungers and thirsts of every sinful stripe, after he volunteers for a medical experiment that goes wrong and transforms him into a creature of the night.
The greatest of Sang-hyun’s temptations is his attraction to Tae-ju, a childhood friend now trapped in an unhappy marriage. Orphaned as a child, Tae-ju lives with her thick-witted husband (who is also, in an unsettling twist, formerly her adoptive brother) and his overbearing mother. Her situation is so dire that she first appears to us looking more like a vampire than Sang-hyun does: pale, frowning, and rumpled, she seethes with unexpressed rage. Sang-hyun is similarly tortured, resorting to brutal self-flagellation as a remedy for impure thoughts. The pair’s forbidden courtship unfolds in moving fashion, moving from tentative first steps to truly soaring, joyful liberation in some of the film’s most memorable scenes. But like director Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Thirst doesn’t let us forget that the love affair at its heart comes with a disturbing cost. Indeed, Thirst is ultimately even less willing than Alfredson’s film is to indulge in simple romance and revenge fantasies. “Vampires are cuter than I thought,” Tae-ju moons, but Twilight this ain’t: soon enough, Sang-hyun and Tae-ju find themselves in a reality that nightmarishly countermands Tae-ju’s dreamy first impressions of vampirism.
Remarkably, Park maintains a genuine compassion for his embattled lead characters even as he exposes their absurdity, their selfishness, and their capacity for cruelty. (Tae-ju’s broadly drawn husband and mother-in-law aren’t given the same depth, but the implication is that they don’t possess it in the first place.) Actor Song Kang-ho (best known to American audiences for his work in The Host) anchors the film with his performance as Sang-hyun, impressively managing the priest’s transformation from would-be saint to prolific sinner. Sang-hyun may lose track of himself, but the actor playing him never does. It’s a performance that’s not to be undervalued. Meanwhile, actress Kim Ok-vin, from anemic waif to lusty vamp, more than meets the challenges of her role.
The performances are highlights of a beautifully composed film that rings with humor, style, and invention. Park excels at making old tropes his own and seemingly pushing every idea to its absolute limit. Rather than being straitjacketed by convention, Park rejoices in exploring the most outlandish possibilities of a familiar tale. The traditions of the genre become his playground. An earlier vampire film, the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, is often described as being like two movies in one, so swift and jarring is its gearshift from nineties neo-noir potboiler to campy bloodsucking splatterfest. Thirst, by contrast, turns on a dime much more than once, from a comic reluctant-vamp narrative to a supernatural love story to a chilling meditation on guilt that echoes the rhythms of Poe’s telltale heart to something else again. Yet the progression feels so natural that the film never ceases to feel like a unified whole. Unapologetically gory (a particularly evocative note that I took at the screening simply reads “blood through a woodwind”) but enchantingly spry and possessed of a rare soulfulness too, Thirst is a film of both brutality and grace that elegantly reduces our romantic notions about cute, noble vampires to just so many ashes.