I’m not going to pretend any familiarity with Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, the novel which provides the partial source material for the latest film from the director of the Korean landmark “Old Boy.” Park Chan Wook is a big of a madman as a filmmaker, and while I admire “J.S.A.,” a fairly straightforward early film, and while I think he could make a great “normal” film any time he wants to, he’s too eccentric to tackle genre material head-on. There are long stretches of “Thirst” that play out like uneasy nightmares, and other sequences that play like dreams far wetter, and that combination seems to be irresistable to the director.
If Park Chan Wook is one of my favorite Korean filmmakers, then the great Song Kang Ho is one of my favorite actors working in amy language at all right now. Here, he stars as Sang-hyeon, a priest who faces a spiritual crisis, meets a woman, plays out a film noir psychodrama, and then unleashes the forces that lead to his own destruction, all with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It’s a wild downward spiral, dark and horrifyingly funny, the absolute annihilation of a man of faith played out as bloodsport.
And did I mention it’s a vampire movie, too?
The v word is everywhere right now, enjoying one of its occasional cultural resurgences thanks to the success of “Twilight” at the movies and “True Blood” on TV and “The Strain” at the bookstore, and one of the things that should be apparent from the way all of these different properties have found strong reactions from their fan bases is that there is more than enough room for different interpretations of the vampire myth. It’s an idea that can bend depending on what your underlying metaphor is, what you want to say about life using vampires as your way into the conversation.
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“Thirst” is about faith and sexual politics, and it’s far more sinister than most of the other recent takes on vampires. That should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Park Chan Wook’s work. He’s never been terribly interested in typical relationships between men and women, and so instead, he introduces Sang-hyeon to Tae-joo, played by the lanky and strange Ok Vin Kim, an allegedly battered and ignored wife who sees this priest, struggling with an experimental sickness that killed everyone else exposed to it, as her delivery from a life of quiet suffocation. She has no idea what she’s getting into, though, and she has no idea what the freedom she craves will ultimately cost her.
Sang-Hyeon starts the movie as a healer, and he ends the movie as a destroyer, but throughout, he struggles to maintain some sort of moral compass, no matter what his circumstance. When he offers himself up for a medical experiment, hoping to help find the cure for a rare virus, he becomes the only survivor for reasons that aren’t immediately clear to him. At first, he seems to have the ability to heal others, and it seems to be some sort of miracle. Not many miracles leave you craving blood or fearing sunlight, though, and as Sang-Hyeon realizes what he has become, he struggles to survive while hurting as few people as possible.
When he comes into contact with Tae-joo, what is left of his religious faith crumbles in the face of a combination of lust and protectiveness. He sees her as abused, bruised, in need of help, and she plays upon those urges in him, telling her about all the pain she’s suffered at the hands of her husband, who was a childhood friend to Sang-Hyeon. This middle section of the film plays out almost like a twisted film noir about a woman turning a priest to murder using sex as the bait. The choices that launch them from act two to act three, though, are where the kink kicks into overdrive, and the results are bloody, sexy, twisted dark fun.
I know I shouldn’t call a movie with a heart as dark as this one’s “fun,” but damn it, Park Chan Wook manages to somehow make all the little details pop, and it’s the sheer filmcraft on display that gets me giddy. I’m more than willing to admit that his narrative gets away from him in the film in places, and it doesn’t all tie together thematically in the end, but there’s so much about it that is so smart and sleek and sensual that I just plain enjoyed sitting back and letting it wash over me.
If you like your genre fare to be adult and challenging, “Thirst” is a safe bet this weekend in limited release, and I hope it does well enough to open even wider. The cinematography by Chung Hoon Chung is sensational, and the film has more than enough crimson for any gore fan. Underneath it all, the film has a beating, broken heart, and although I wouldn’t call it the best work Park Chan Wook has done so far, I would say it suggests that there’s still plenty this filmmaker can do to surprise us.
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