Universal // 2009 // 134 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // November 17th, 2009
"Ravage my body sworn to chastity, leave me with no pride, and have me
live in shame.
Let no man pray for me, but only the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me."
In this current trend of Twilight, with its sanitized teen romance and sweetheart bloodsuckers, and True Blood, with all its false debauchery and potboiler storytelling, it's easy to forget the potential of the vampire genre to deliver meaty allegories on sex and death. That's where Thirst comes in. This Korean erotic shocker from Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) has everything you could ask from a vampire film: sex, religion, philosophy, murder mystery, and buckets of blood. Thirst, where have you been all my life?
Tired of simply reading the dying their rights and taking nurses' confessions, Priest Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho, The Host) volunteers for an almost assured suicide mission to help find a cure for a deadly virus. After receiving the prototype vaccine, he contracts the disease, but survives; the first of 500 volunteers to live. Becomes a messiah of sorts in the minds of the people, his immunity comes at a price. He now has a taste for blood, and all those urges he's tried to suppress throughout his life have become too strong to resist. When he is invited into the home of a man he helps to cure, Sang-hyeon finds himself irresistibly drawn to the man's wife, Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin, Arang). When he reveals his true self to her, their attraction becomes deadly.
Park Chan-wook doesn't reinvent the wheel with this tale of a priest turned bloodsucking freak, but he throws in all kinds of bizarre situations, violent bloodshed, and steamy eroticism while still managing to relay a well-told story filled with emotional moments, intelligent dialog, and a sense of humor. It has touches of the classic romantic vampires from the Hammer films but still feels fresh and interesting. Chan-wook focuses as much on style as story. Chung Chung-hoon's gorgeous cinematography varies its palette from deep blacks and blues to bright sterile whites. Indoor and outdoor scenes are shot at strange angles with equal beauty, and there is balance in the extremes of violence and the rare quiet scenes, especially the final tender moments.
Kang-ho plays the reluctant vampire we so often see, transformed against his will and struggling with these new desires. As a priest, though, this goes even further for Sang-hyeon. The extent to which he has suppressed his natural urges reaches extreme levels even before his transformation. Now, he can beat himself about the thighs all he wants. The only way to squelch these desires is to satisfy them. In order to live, he knows he must drink human blood and tries to without resorting to murder. He uses his position at the hospital to enter the rooms of comatose patients and drink just enough blood from their tubes not to harm them. Though it may seem this is a less intrusive way to satiate his hunger, the clandestine nature of his actions are more reminiscent of rape than the vampire's bite. As he goes about drinking blood and fighting the urge to murder, he must hide what he is from those who now idolize him as a savior, including the family who takes him in. It's not long before his lust kicks in. Once he sees that Tae-joo is treated like Cinderella by her husband and his mother, he wants to become her Prince Charming. He knows it's a sin, but can't help how he feels.
Thus starts the bizarre romance of Thirst, in which Sang-hyeon tries to fix all of Tae-joo's problems...but she isn't quite what she appears. While in the confines of her family home, she is meek and mousey. She may try to escape each night, running barefoot from the house, but always returns. This is only a cry for help, not an honest attempt to escape the situation. When Sang-hyeon sets her free, she becomes like a panther, ravenous for power and revenge. As their sexual relationship blossoms, he must reveal his affliction, and what begins as horror and disgust becomes curiosity and ultimately a desire to become like him. Instead of reluctance, she relishes the kill and gives in completely to her bloodlust. While Tae-joo willingly gives up her humanity, Sang-hyeon's priest-side still shines through. He tries to make her realize the consequences of her actions, never realizing he's inching closer and closer to her dark side. Their strange mutual affection is sometimes silly, but in the end holds a very satisfying emotional weight.
Less satisfying is the film's murder mystery subplot. Though based on Emile Zola's novel, Therese Raquin, these scenes are more reminiscent of Clue. While there doesn't seem to be much of connection between the vampires and a haunted mystery, it does help to drive home that these creatures, vicious as they may be, still retain some humanity and feelings of guilt. It doesn't work quite as well as the scenes in which Sang-hyeon deals with his affliction or his relationship with Tae-joo, it does provide some much needed comic relief -- a welcome distraction from the extremes of sex and violence.
Where Thirst really shines is in its lead performances. Both actors are pitch perfect in all aspects of the film. Kang-ho, a regular in Chan-wook's films, showcases some of his best work yet as the afflicted priest, his soft face displaying both the grief and ecstasy of his transformation, remaining believable in even the wildest of scenes. Ok-vin is equally effective in her transformation, though it takes on a much different form. For Tae-joo, the change means freedom and power, things she never had. Where Sang-hyeon fights it, she acts like she was born to be a vampire. The supporting cast is ancillary -- mostly meat for the vampires -- but serve their purpose. Kim Hae-sook does very well as Lady Ra, Tae-joo's mother-in-law, spending much of her time locked inside her body, unable to communicate. The slight movements she makes with her eyes and fingertips add an extra bit of spookiness to the atrocities committed in front of her.
If only this DVD release were more impressive. Univeral's Focus Features picked up distribution for the film, following its festival success, but has done little beyond pressing it onto disc. The 2.35 anamorphic transfer does nothing to highlight the cinematography. Inconsistent colors, poor detail, and lousy contrast detract greatly from the experience. The darker scenes are murky and the bright whites display far too much grain. The 5.1 surround mix is considerably better, with quality separation and good use of spatial effects in the rear. Some bonus features would have been welcome, but this is strictly bare bones, without even a trailer to accompany it.
At over two hours, Thirst does feel a little long, the pace dragging as we get deeper into the murder mystery subplot. While some of it is very good, a fair bit could have been cut.
Some also might complain the film goes way overboard in the erotic violence. I would argue that, while it does go pretty far, not only are those aspects of the film as effective you'll find in any vampire story, they are entirely necessary to tell the story. Sang-hyeon is forced to live a life opposite of how he has been trained. I don't know what one would call the opposite of a priest, but I do know it's nothing one could call chaste.
Thirst is much better than your average genre entry. Although a bit over-the-top with its drastic tone changes in and odd sense of humor, Chan-wook shows a steady hand. Highly stylized with fantastic performances and beautiful cinematography, this is an adult-oriented shot in the arm for a genre that too often panders to teenagers.
Universal is guilty of releasing a sub-par transfer on a bare bones disc, but
Thirst is one of the best vampire films I've seen in years.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Korean)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R