I figured a second review of THIRST was best reserved for when the film expanded to several new cities. What a coincidence that 8/14/09 marks just such an occasion. Click here for a list of theaters hosting the badass Korean mamajama.
One of the best ways to gain interest (mine at least) is through vague suggestion. You’re not quite sure what the title means. You know what the words mean, but don’t know what is so special about those particular words that they symbolize the feeling of the entire film.
In the case of THIRST it can be implied that the title generically represents the need for liquid. When you hear the synopsis that it’s a film about a vampire then you can gather that the title refers to the vampire’s need for blood. This, however, is the powerful thing about simple titles. Ironically, the fewer amount of words used in a title the more it tends to embody. Going by that rationale, and after viewing THIRST, the thickness of the film’s ideas and themes couldn’t have been spread over a multiple word title; it had to be compacted into one simple expression of desire, and necessity.
Like some of Chan-wook Park’s other films it focuses on very three-dimensional individuals under extreme circumstances. THIRST tells the story about priest Sang-hyeon volunteering for a medical experiment that ends up turning him into a vampire, unknowingly. His survival was hopeful, but why he’s alive and nobody else is inexplicable, and the after-effects go unnoticed by all but him.
What follows is Sang-hyeon’s journey into the very depths of sin. Along the way he’s posed with instances that lead him to question his faith, doubt, remorse, temptation; but also his own decisions that could disallow such wonderful things as unconditional love. It’s a parable about all of the complexities that make us human, told through someone who doesn’t realize most of it until after he no longer is one.
Sang-hyeon being a priest is the perfect choice for conflict, and leaves open much room for self-discovery. It’s almost no different than seeing a coming-of-age story, but through the experiences of a grown man with a grown man’s empathy. He’s lived a life of being completely inhibited, and is only as challenged in his morality and piety as the rest of us. He’s passed those tests. It’s not until he’s forced to resort to something questionably sinful in order to live that he begins to venture beyond where his moral position previously kept him from going; that, and his newfound obsession after a reunion with a childhood friend, the occupier of the other half of this tale.
After Sang-hyeon’s volunteer stay turns him into a vampire he’s asked to visit a woman’s son in the hospital. Sang-hyeon’s survival of the disease leads others to perceive him as somewhat of a miracle worker, and he’s often asked to speak with people in dire physical health. During the visit Sang-hyeon and the patient realize they are old friends from childhood, and he also becomes reacquainted with Tae-joo the girl the family had adopted, grown up into an attractive and quietly pained young woman.
Tae-joo has somewhat of a reawakening when Sang-hyeon reappears, and she portrays the opposite side of the spectrum from the priest’s. She’s not inhibited by any beliefs in a higher power, but she’s been broken due to a life of being ignored, and treated as less than human. In Sang-hyeon she finds tenderness, caring, and an escape from emotional degradation. Unfortunately, obvious and not so obvious obstacles stand in their way from doing what they both yearn to do.
Yet, they are two people bound to one another, almost fatefully, and their relationship is as beautiful and tragic as any we’ve ever experienced in the cinema. Their finding one another under the conditions that they do pose each to learn as much about themselves as they do about human nature, and what keeps us from succumbing to animalistic behavior; and asks things like whether or not we should or shouldn’t allow ourselves to.
Again, like Chan-wook’s other films he appears to find a clear interest in the gray areas of right and wrong and enjoys displaying them through hypothetical incidents; with an approach that can be as darkly humorous as it is violent. Only Pedro Almodovar has shown the kind of skill at invoking laughter when the subject probably shouldn’t call for it; and although it won’t be categorized as such it isn’t farfetched to consider THIRST as much a comedic masterpiece as it is a work of artistic horror.
However, unlike Chan-wook’s other films THIRST tends to feel as long as it is. It doesn’t run at the speed of light as his other masterpiece OLDBOY does, and there are multiple times where it feels it’s going to end but doesn’t. Without trying to make excuses for it I’ll attribute the feeling to that of us uncharacteristically not being able to calculate where the end of this Park Chan-wook film is.
Chan-wook’s last four films (which includes his segment in 3 EXTREMES) were revenge tales. Typically, a revenge tale climaxes at the end, the final showdown, or revenge exacted. When it arrives we know it. THIRST has no clear destination. It’s an emotional and philosophical exploration, and only Chan-wook knows how much he wants his characters to learn; and at what costs. However, when the end does come you’ll still know it when you see it.
I wish I could use endless adjectives to describe the density of THIRST, but my vocabulary is not that large. It has more to say, and even more questions to impose than we’re accustomed to from any film. I find myself conflicted to call it a horror film at the risk of someone not taking it as seriously as they should due to the stigma of what a horror film is perceived to be, yet I’m proud that a filmmaker chose a vampire story to communicate such complex ideas. It is just a genre, which is just a categorical label, but one that’s been often relegated for infantilism. It’s fun to be a child every now and then, but it’s nice to be reminded that we don’t have to be when the filmmaker doesn’t want us to be.