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Thirst (박쥐)

April 26, 2010

Released in 2009, Park Chan-wook’s Thirst* scooped a Jury Prize from the Cannes Film Festival and performed well in the Korean box-office. The film was much-anticipated by western audiences, particularly as Park practically represents the hallyu (“Korean wave”) singlehandedly on the strength of his film Oldboy and the reception it enjoyed with film fans in Europe and America. The prospect of the celebrated Korean filmmaker delivering a vampire film therefore generated a great deal of excitement. Upon its general release, however, Thirst ultimately proved divisive with audiences and critics, with some praising Park’s originality and the solid central performances whilst others balked at the overlong running time and awkward tonal shifts. A recurring, and quite valid, criticism was that Thirst came across as a couple of different films rather clumsily cobbled together.

Korean screen titan Song Kang-ho stars as Sang-hyun, a dedicated priest who volunteers at a local hospital but who is plagued with inner doubts concerning how generally shitty life is. Sang-hyun participates in a medical experiment to try to cure the deadly Emmanuel virus and is soon suffering the effects of the virus itself with horrendous boils breaking out on his body while he coughs up blood. The priest suddenly appears miraculously cured following a blood transfusion and attracts the attention of many devout worshippers who believe he has healing powers. These events bring Kang-woo, an old childhood friend, into Sang-hyun’s life and he begins visiting the home of this friend for weekly games of mahjong. There he meets Kang-woo’s wife, the beautiful but unhappy Tae-ju (played by Kim Ok-bin), and finds himself irresistibly drawn to her. He also discovers that he has become a vampire, presumably from the blood transfusion he received, and his “cure” from the virus is simply his vampire abilities at work. The newly invigorated Sang-hyun and the desperately miserable Tae-ju embark on an illicit affair with Tae-ju eventually telling Sang-hyun that Kang-woo has been viciously abusing her in their home. Struggling with his newfound carnal desires, the conflicted and troubled vamp-priest soon finds himself sinking further and further into a life of depravity with his equally doomed lover in tow.

In making Thirst, Park Chan-wook started with an idea he had for a doomed vampire romance story but struggled to complete the details surrounding his main characters. To solve this problem he basically made a screen adaptation of Thérèse Raquin, a novel and play by the French writer Émile Zola, and used it to form the second act of the film to build his (quite different) vampire story around. Although this might sound like a critical observation, it comes straight from the mouth of the director himself who has openly explained the process of fusing his own vampire story with Zola’s tale in interviews (with Twitch here). Indeed, given how faithfully the film follows Thérèse Raquin, it would have been impossible for Park to have left this unacknowledged. The problem here is that, as original a manoeuvre as this is, it is responsible for the effect of Thirst appearing to be different films woven together not entirely seamlessly. Only the third act seems to be a vampire/horror film, the rest of the film is not, and your enjoyment of it will largely hinge on a willingness to indulge the shifts and having the patience to do so over the considerable running time.

On a more positive note, the film is well made. It looks gorgeous and greatly benefits from some fantastic central performances and the strong current of black humour throughout. The ever-dependable Song Kang-ho delivers a solid, quality turn as the morally desperate priest struggling to reconcile his Catholic faith with his newfound demonic nature and hunger for a sinister range of pleasures of the flesh. The broad religious themes of guilt and redemption in Thirst are entrusted to this central character to communicate to the audience and Song does so with aplomb. The actor possesses a rather impressive range when his restrained, tortured priest here is compared to his more flamboyant recent leading roles in Bong Joon-ho’s hit films The Host (괴물) and The Good, The Bad, The Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈). His young co-star, Kim Ok-bin also gives a dazzling turn as the initially timid and miserable Tae-ju, bursting with sexual repression and eventually transformed into a monstrous, gleeful killer. Kim’s performance is daring for a young Korean actress, infused as it is with a dark, subversive sexuality and she more than holds her own beside Song Kang-ho and the strong supporting cast of accomplished, older Korean actors. Although there have been some complaints levelled at the poor quality of CGI and wire stunts in one particular rooftop set-piece of Thirst, the cinematography and production design in particular are quite remarkable.

Park Chan-wook boldly defied expectations with this film, producing an end product that is quite deliberately not a mere companion piece to his vengeance films (albeit populated with vampires). Darkly comic and visually striking, Thirst has been crafted with charmingly poetic artistry. Criticisms of the pacing and the tonal shifts can be addressed on the grounds that such features are not uncommon to many Korean films and are simply indicative of the Korean cinematic canon. Unfortunately the film also suffers from a sense of over-ambition and the unavoidable impression that the director is trying to cram too much into it. A straight screen adaptation of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin may have proved more effective from Park, or perhaps a tighter vampire priest tale with elements of the Zola novel informing the characterization in a more trimmed and subdued manner. Nevertheless the film remains recommended and Park Chan-wook remains one of the more interesting and inventive filmmakers out there.

(*The original Korean title of Thirst is 박쥐 – “Bakjwi” – which actually translates as “The Bat”)

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7 comments

  1. Yeah!! More Korean film discussion.

    I agree with your description of the movie. It’s interesting to watch from beginning to end, but for different reasons at different points.

    That this experiment isn’t entirely successful is forgivable, however, when one considers how inventive the film is and where it forges new ground for a director who could easily have revisited themes that have gained him international acclaim in the past (as you mentioned the sensation of Oldboy).

    It seems like there aren’t enough auteurs out there today who take big and/or interesting chances with their craft once they’re established and I dig that Korean filmmakers like Park Chan-wook are willing to do so.


  2. Funny, it seems I’ve weighed in just to reiterate what you said in your post. Anyways… you nailed it on this one.

    And maybe I should call out some successful filmmakers that aren’t taking big/interesting chances. hm… I had Wes Anderson in mind but there just aren’t that many directors working in Hollywood worth discussing right now… or are there?


  3. I think Darren Aronofsky is compiling an impressive resume.

    Yeah, Wes Anderson is also quite dependable.

    Chris Nolan seems fairly decent for a guy working on mega-budget mainstream Hollywood pictures (and getting to put out interesting films in between, pretty stoked for Inception).


  4. Well doesn’t really compare favorably to the length of a list of Hollywood directors worth-watching made in the 70s, but no disputing Aronofsky is doing great stuff. And “Scott Pilgrim” this summer will be the big test of Edgar Wright’s craft — he’s got some good stuff under his belt, but the canon is still modest.

    Spike Jonze tried something new with “Where the Wild Things Are” but I’m not sure the final product was worth the years of waiting. I prefer Michel Gondry simply because he’s so prolific and inventive, but his approach to story-telling is a little too unorthodox (with the exception of “Eternal Sunshine…”).

    To tie the discussion back into Korean film: Kim the director of “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” also has a respectable track record, while jumping from genre to genre. I read he might be making a movie in the U.S., but I have absolutely no hope for the quality of a film made by Korean filmmakers in Hollywood.


  5. I love Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life. I should really watch it again and write about it here. My meta-sexual adoration of Lee Byung-hun started with that film. It’s fucking ace.


  6. Yeah!! Do it!

    I haven’t even watched that film yet. But I’ll get on that post-haste.


  7. Thank you for the enthusiastic encouragement, Nickrobot. Any relation to Nick Mann? Did he create you in his own image or something? A Mann-made robot?



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