Thirst/Bakjwi - Monstrous
| Park Chan Wook's Thirst is kind of an anti-Twilight. Park's vampires don't waste their time brooding about "should we or shouldn't we" sexual abstinence teasing, they simply have far too much killing and f%$#ing to do. For anyone who prefers their vampires sharing more than one bodily fluid, Thirst may be the film for you.
Here in South Korea, Thirst is billed as an "erotic" film as opposed to falling into the horror or thriller categories. To me, it plays out as almost equal parts comedy, horror, and soft-core creature of the night porn. Is it as much of a must-see as Park's much acclaimed revenge trilogy? To me... well, no. But to anyone with a slight curiosty to Park as a director, or towards the ever-shifting genre of vampire films, Thirst is certainly worth a viewing.
As far as vampire films go for me, I'm more of a Near Dark kind of guy than I am a 30 Days of Night kind of guy. Feats of vampire strength impress me, and the genre is rife with cinematic possibility, but I do grow weary of watching pale people act like pompous supermen and revere their own lifestyle choice (see: Interview with the Vampire).
What's infinitely more intriguing to me are those films where there are vampires who simply don't want to be vampires. How do they, and more importantly why do they opt to stay in the land of the living, such as it might be for the undead? Films like last year's superior Let the Right One In and now Park's Thirst let this struggle serve as a central theme.
Yes, there is violence in both films, a necessity that's difficult to argue, but that's not the point. The point here is discovery, expression, and survival. Like most of Park's other works, Thirst is populated with characters we can get behind, but never entirely. What better way to personify this fetish than in the form of Sang-Hyeon, a Korean Catholic priest who volunteers to undergo a potentially life-saving blood test/transfusion in Africa in an attempt to find a cure for a disease wracking a local parish.
Sang Hyeon, while recovering from the experiment, has what will surely go down as the most memorable flute-playing scene in film history. He is soon comatose, ravaged with facial lesions, and presumed dead.
His subsequent recovery and return to his home country is regarded as a miracle. Sang Hyeon has become a healer of sorts - not a label or designation he's at all comfortable with - probably due to the fact that keeping the effects of his disease at bay requires him to siphon and drink blood from sleeping patients at the hospital where he works.
Thirst walks a fine line between thrilling and absurd for the majority of its 2 hour and 13 minutes running time. Mostly, it's a success - never more so than when the focus draws to the home of Sang Hyeon's childhood friend, who is afflicted with his own disease, still living with mom, and married to the impossibly beautiful Tae Joo (Ok-Vin Kim) - an adopted sister-turned oppressed Cinderella type. Returning to this home where he too was raised, Sang Hyeon finds himself drawn to his Tae Joo in ways that he and his faith can't explain.
I'm not sure that Tae Joo could explain it either, but either way, the two soon find themselves in a cooperative sexual discovery that is freeing to her, and shattering to what he believes himself to be. Soon, Sang Hyeon has literally created a monster - and his faltering control of his own desires is nowhere near strong enough to even suggestively curb the desires of Te Joo, who has enough good reason to want to be a vampire, and to use that power to remove herself from her own situation. To watch Tae Joo revel in her "vampireness" is to witness a sexually-agressive, bent-on-revenge, consequence-free id run sexually and violently amok. I could think of worse ways to spend a couple of hours in the movie theatre.
Thirst is violent and gory, but never more so than its story requires. Thirst also creates scenes of tension that you have never encountered before. A slowly rising sun has all but turned cliche in vampire films, but here it's used with care and, I would argue, gentleness. Frantic blinking, white walls, and dreams of the undead may in turns tighten your stomach, burn your eyes, and make your hair stand on end as it did mine, then again, the talking Rottweiler in Summer of Sam did that to me too, so I wouldn't be surprised if many find Thirst to be more than a little too much.
Regardless of how you feel about vampire films prior to walking into Thirst, you will likely feel differently about them when you walk out. Thirst has something new to say. Park Chan Wook is unquestionably one of the more intriguing directors working today. Thirst proves that he's also unpredictable.