THIRST is the kind of film I don’t want to say anything about. I just want to point it out, say, “Yep, this is the one”, and move on until more people have an opportunity to see it. It’s the first time all year long at a theater that I’ve felt at the mercy of a filmmaker. It’s the first time in ’09 I’ve felt unequivocally that what I’m watching is a film without peer, which is saying a lot considering how much in love I am with WATCHMEN, THE HURT LOCKER and MOON. THIRST writhes with a seductive, marvelous sense of discovery that I could only spoil by talking about. Which is giving me blue balls, because the more I think about it, the more I just want to talk about Chan-wook Park’s best film to date.
I won’t spoil anything beyond what the trailer makes obvious: Kang-ho Song plays a priest who receives a blood transfusion that turns him into a vampire. Done. That’s all you’re getting out of me plot wise. Anyone who dives beyond that is a dick. I will, however, talk about why I think it’s one of the best films of the year, despite having imperfections at its core. It’s a flawed masterpiece, not unlike the aforementioned diamond. It communicates a world to the naked eye, a world that looks perfect, but when the trained eye dives down to a molecular level structural inconsistencies appear. But who cares? It’s not about the guts, it’s about what it represents. This is the one, after all. You know it just looking at it. THIRST is a gem to behold, molecular level be damned.
The easiest way to describe something as complex as THIRST would be to call it the Anti-TWILIGHT vampire movie. It’s lethal, highly erotic, romantic in its savagery, lustful, difficult, and, best of all, totally uninhibited. Chan-wook Park is not out to split the notion of the vampire into good and evil, as so many films with this dynamic do, and he is certainly not concerned with making any of his characters enviable. His goal is to show how unrestrained a detached soul can be. Simple as that. Vampirism is a catalyst for examining faith. Faith in the Lord, Faith in Marriage, Faith in Humanity. All three are layered insecurities spread throughout Park and Jeong’s script. It’s fascinating to watch how seamless the transition can be from devotion to absolute corruption.
Oh, and it’s also ostensibly the most disturbing Korean movie I’ve ever seen. Which is great, because those brutal interludes are made all the more powerful by a script that isn’t just consistently funny, but is often times downright hilarious. In that respect this is Park’s most Western movie yet. Korean cinema has an odd sense of humor, one that either falls in line with cultural norms lost in translation or with a slapstick comedy off-breed that went out of style in America long ago. Take, for example, star Kang-ho Song’s two best films (not counting THIRST), MEMORIES OF MURDER and THE HOST. Dark moments are punctuated by comedic gags, be they the cops you’re not sure you’re supposed to take seriously in MEMORIES or the falling-on-their-ass moments of THE HOST. Yes, the cultural nuance that makes THIRST a distinctly Korean movie is still there, but much of the film’s dialog is far closer to a witty exchange in, say, a Woody Allen film than the bumbling, falling down antics found in most Korean exports.
Which brings me to my only problem with the film. There is a tonal shift in the middle of THIRST that seems completely out of place, taking it from grounded to lofty in a single scene. I understand its inclusion at a point in the film that requires a release of the guilt that’s been building around all the actions leading up to said scene, but the pressure difference is so drastic it completely divorces you from the film. It’s the only batch of levity in the film that’s so absurd its farsical. You’re no longer submerged in the world of the characters, you’re yanked back out into your auditorium seat by a film that has suddenly decided to literally show what its characters are thinking. It is the visual equivalent of Woody Allen subtitling speech vs thoughts in ANNIE HALL. It’s a wild sequence and it’s humorous, but it doesn’t fit. And yes, I realize a paragraph ago I was favorably comparing THIRST to the sharp writing of Allen, but it’s not necessary to be so damned literal about it.
Not in a movie that ends up feeling longer than it needs to be, that is. That sequence, which is maybe 15-20 minutes long, could have been excised wholesale and the movie would be better off for it. It’s telling of how talented of a director Chan-wook Park is that the remainder of the movie recovers from that distraction, but when you walk out of the theater, you’re still walking out 20 minutes later than you could have – and should have.
But that’s okay, because I’m sure that glaring wrinkle will iron out with repeat viewings. Plus, taken as a whole THIRST is just magnificent. It’s a 2009 vampire tale that feels like an old school man-becomes-monster movie. It’s funny, startling and has a never ending spirit of adventure to all its dark misery. I know I recently called THE COLLECTOR the best American horror movie so far this year and I still stand by that because, well, its domestic competition is comprised of two Platinum Dunes, 3-D camp and one generic ass PG-13 ghost movie. But THIRST is flat out one of the best movies I’ve seen of any genre this year. That it’s a horror movie is icing on the crimson cake. Can’t wait to see it again.