(Park Chan-wook, 2009)
(essay by Kevin)
Park Chan-wook’s Thirst may just be the best vampire I’ve seen that isn’t silent or in German. This vampire movie is mopey and dopey with ashen heartthrobs declaring their love for a young girl while they prance around with their shirts off. No, this vampire movie is an odd pastiche of violence, nourish police procedural, Bergman-esque psychological drama, sexuality, and dark comedy; it’s also one of the most beautiful looking of modern horror pictures. Thirst is a film that lingers – with its stark lighting, reds that pop off the screen, hypnotic aesthetic – long after its initial viewing.
The story concerns Sang-hyun, a priest who is tired of the convent life; he’s tired of a life filled with death and suffering, and how this seemingly never ending cycle of despair feels as thought it’s crushing him into oblivion. Fed up with the priesthood, Sang-hyun volunteers at a hospital to be a guinea pig for doctors trying to find a vaccine for a devastating virus. However – and of course this should come as no surprise to fans of horror films – the experiment fails, and Sang-hyun, in need of a blood transfusion, seems to be facing death. But once Sang-hyun receives his blood transfusion something odd happens, and he makes a miraculous recovery. News of his recovery spreads, and people begin to flock to his congregation to see what kind of miracles he can perform. However, Sang-hyun begins to relapse, coughing up blood, and while waking up one morning, realized he needs to rush to shelter to guard his eyes from the light. He has become a vampire.
Oh, I could go much further into the story about how Sang-hyun bites his way through various victims until he meets that one special girl and they fall in love…and then, well, you know how it goes. But see, that’s the thing about Thirst, despite its longer running time the film is all at once horrifying, poignant, and hilarious. Like in all of Chan-wook’s films the violence is gruesome and beautifully shot (this is the same man who made the “revenge trilogy”…it’s most notable entry being Oldboy), but also, as in all of Chan-wook’s films, the story is well-thought out and often times powerful. Think about the moment in Oldboy where our protagonist flips through a scrapbook…Thirst is filled with these kinds of somber, quiet moments that seem out of place for a horror film, but then again, this isn’t your average horror film.
Thirst is about vampires, yes, but it’s also a love story, and in the moments where the film slows down from the procedural/thriller and horror elements it shows just how flexible this genre can be. It’s one of the best of the modern horror films, and the people at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival seemed to agree as they awarded the film their Jury Prize. A lot of people complained about the length of the film claiming it to be overlong and too lumbering in its “unnecessary” third act. I can see where they’re coming from, but when a movie entertains and moves me in a way that Thirst does, I don’t mind letting it sit there for a long time. This isn’t the type of horror film where everything that is happening on the screen is meant to be vital information or visceral terror that you should be paying attention to; the film is more somber and contemplative than that, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s almost as if Bergman had made a vampire film. This is the type of film you enjoy letting linger in your mind as you watch and long after you’re done watching it.
If you’re wanting to ease into the Korean horror subgenre I strongly recommend you start with Chan-wook’s Oldboy, and then move onto something like A Tale of Two Sisters; however, if you really want to see what the genre is capable of, and to see the kind of odd postmodern horror films they’re making in Korea, Thirst is the best example. The Korean’s are making vastly superior horror films than the J-horror folks in Japan, and all one has to do is look at Korea’s greatest genre filmmaker Park Chan-wook to see why.
(this film appeared on Kevin’s list at #37, and Jamie’s at #62)