Thursday, March 28, 2013

Movie Review: "Thirst"

This is part 6 of my Park Chan-wook retrospective. It's also the last until I get to see Stoker, and since I live in the middle of nowhere I don't know when I'll get the chance.

I kind of feel bad being disappointed by "Thirst", but that's what happens when a director has as good a track record as Park Chan-wook. One of the best vampire films of the 2000s qualifies as a letdown. But I'm not going to beat up on "Thirst" too much. In an overstuffed genre it's got a ton of new ideas. And a film failing because it tries to do too much could certainly commit worse sins.

Park regular Song Kang-ho gets an entire movie all to himself as Sang-hyun, a good-hearted priest deeply affected by the number of followers he has lost to a terrifying new blood disease. That disease, named EV, causes patients to grow boils, cough up blood, and die very quickly. So moved is he by their tragic deaths that he volunteers to enter an experimental trial, and facing near-certain death while hopefully helping to find a cure. During the trial he succumbs to the disease, but springs miraculously back to life, making him the sole survivor of the disease (and a makeshift saint among his followers)

Unfortunately there is a side effects to his recovery, namely vampirism. Sang-hyun gradually discovers his thirst for human blood, and is soon siphoning doses from coma victims (who probably wouldn't miss it, I guess) and keeping blood bags in his fridge. If he goes too long without fresh blood the EV symptoms return, so after a suicide attempt proves his immortality he's got no choice but to become a career bloodsucker.

The first third of the film is the most compelling, grounding the vampire elements in reality, and featuring a protagonist who really doesn't want to hurt anyone, just to stay alive. Making him a priest is effective because now he has to reconcile bloodsucking with his faith and vows. This gets even trickier when he notices that vampirism has also caused him to be hypersensitive to smell, and increasingly unable to resist lustful urges. He confides in a fellow priest who disgusts him by demanding some of Sang-hyun's vampire blood for himself... why should Sang-hyun hog the immortality?

At this point Park marries the vampire plot to a domestic thriller, and I'm not convinced that both were necessary. Sang-hyun begins boarding with a dysfunctional family: Matriarch Lady Ra (Kim Hae-suk), her doltish son Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), and his wife and former adopted sister (eww) Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). Tae-ju is trouble on two legs, desperate to escape her domestic hell and particularly good at inciting Sang-hyun's libido. He quickly falls in lust with Tae-ju who swiftly begins manipulating him into trying to kill her husband.

This is enough plot for another movie, and at 2 hrs 15 minutes there has to be a shorter, better version of Thirst that could have been made. All the same, Park does this material well, with some great use of shifting focus to direct attention during tense sequences. Yet as the plot goes on, cranking through one twist after another, I began to miss the flashes of light that perked up Park's other work. Thirst might not be the darkest film Park has made, but it's probably the greyest.

At one point I felt like the movie was likely to end, but nope, a third phase begins wherein Tae-ju contracts vampirism. Unfortunately she becomes too much for Sang-hyun to handle, being quite a fan of the killing and the screaming and not much for subtlety. Seeing Kim Ok-bin's portrayal leap over the top from devious to horror film crazy is unfortunate, and in general gas begins to leave the movie at a steady rate about 2/3 of the way through.

Still, almost every part of the film works on its own. There are just too many parts. And it's worth sticking around for the last 10 minutes, which are so well done they make the whole trip worth it. Unlike Park's earlier films this is straight up genre work, efficiently done and with a minimal amount of subtext. If it weren't so bloated I'd be more charitable towards it, but let's keep perspective in mind. Even lesser Park is damn fine film-making, and "Thirst" certainly bears his mark.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)

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