Thirst (2009)

18 Oct

 

So a priest walks into a blood bank ... Stop me if you've heard this one ...

 

Chan-wook Park has never failed to impress me with his measured, mature films. His “Vengeance” trilogy was aesthetically bold and accented with jaw-dropping action sequences, but beneath the stylish surface was a series of masterful takes on the complex emotions which inspire vengeance. So when the auteur decided to take on a vampire tale with “Thirst,” my interest was decidedly piqued.

Priest Sang -hyeon (Kang-ho Song) is so moved by the plights of those suffering from the mysterious Emmanuel Virus he feels led to volunteer for an experimental treatment. Sang-hyeon succumbs to the disease and is pronounced dead but is mysteriously revived after a blood transfusion. The physical evidence of the disease disappears, and the priest is hailed as a miracle healer. He returns to his former duties at his local hospital, but soon the EV seems to return — and it brings with it a strange compulsion. Sang-hyeon finds himself attracted to blood; he’s appalled when he starts sucking a blood-soaked strip of gauze, and he tries to keep his compulsion at bay, but he takes to sipping from patients’ IVs. The blood does more than nourish the priest — it also keeps the physical effects of his EV at bay.

He is sought one day by a woman whose son is dying from cancer. When Sang-hyeon goes to heal what he presumes will be a boy, he instead finds a young man he knew as a child. He lays hands on Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) at the behest of Lady Ra (Hae-sook Kim), and the cancer soon disappears. The priest also meets Kang-woo’s wife, Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), who seems disinterested in her husband’s illness. Lady Ra confides in the priest that she took Tae-ju in as an orphan girl and raised her as her own child, then married her off to Kang-woo. It was easy enough, says Lady Ra, to move Tae-ju from one bed to the other. Sang-hyeon’s healing powers earn him an invitation to Lady Ra’s home for a night of mah-jongg. As he watches Tae-ju care for the pampered man-child Kang-woo, an altogether new compulsion seizes him. As Sang-hyeon struggles with his new and increasingly demanding urges, he and Tae-ju must confront the consequences of trading social mores for pleasures and learn whether the essence of humanity, once sacrificed, can be recaptured.

As with Chan-wook Park’s other films, trying to describe the plot is not without difficulty. The story as described here is basically the tip of the iceberg. The filmmaker has said he makes films which are the “stories of people who place the blame for their actions on others because they refuse to take on the blame themselves,” and “Thirst” is no exception. The plot meanders through a mish-mash of genres — horror, romance, comedy — but the emotional center of the story is strong enough to hold interest through all the twisting.

Visual metaphor can be kind of iffy, but it's used to great (and creepy) effect in "Thirst."

That the audience is so enraptured is due in no small part to the outstanding performances from Song and Ok-bin Kim in the two principal roles. Sometimes when I watch a foreign film, it is hard for me to judge the actors’ performances. Subtitles can only go so far in conveying the subtle differences in inflection and tone that vary from culture to culture. It’s hard to judge nuance from a caption, in other words. This is not an issue in “Thirst.” You can see the passion and emotion on the actors’ faces and in their movements. Even though I’m sure I’m still missing some of the subtlety of the primary performances, I also feel comfortable deeming them extraordinary. Song’s depictions of the torture of restraint and the guilt of indulgence are powerful, and Ok-bin Kim’s portrayal of a woman all too eager to shed the facade of dutiful wife and meek woman is strikingly honest. Her best work may be in the early scenes with the equally impressive Ha-kyun Shin as Kang-woo. As Ok-bin Kim plays it, Tae-ju’s contempt for her husband just barely bubbles beneath the surface, and you get the sense than Shin’s Kang-woo, simple as he is, can sense her hostility. In lesser hands, the willfully child-like Kang-woo might prove difficult to feel sympathetic toward, and it is largely the strength of Shin’s performance which helps the audience feel for his plight.

Taut, detailed story and exceptional acting is far from unusual for Park, but he is also known for not backing away from gruesome story elements, and “Thirst” presents those in abundance. As emotional and dramatic as the story gets, it never strays too far from its macabre conceit or its thread of dark humor. While I would never consider this film a straight-up horror movie, it’s definitely strongly grounded in the vampire mythos and it provides a lot of bloody flat-out horror sequences. The gore reaches a fever pitch toward the end of the film, and culminates in a frenzy of action set against a stark white backdrop. The art direction subtly reflects the major themes of the film, but it also just looks amazing. That the violence is so exceptionally choreographed and so beautifully filmed reinforces the movie’s assertion of the seductiveness of giving in to one’s desires.

With “Thirst,” Chan-wook Park delivers something almost unbelievable: A fresh take on the vampire movie which ends up serving as a broad mirror for human experience. It’s a lofty goal for any film, but especially one with its roots so deeply entrenched in a horror mainstay, and in the capable hands of this exciting filmmaker, it’s achievable. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

Thirst” (“Bakjwi”): Rated R. Starring Kang-ho Song, Ok-bin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-kyun Shin, In-hwan Park, Dal-su Oh, Young-chang Song and Mercedes Cabral. Directed by Chan-wook Park. Screenplay by Seo-Gyeong Jong and Chan-wook Park inspired by the book “Therese Raquin” by Emile Zola. Cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung. Original music by Young-ook Cho.

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