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Entries in Thirst [2009] (1)


Thirst, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Premises, Promises

Some friends and I watched Park Chan-wook’s Thirst the other night. When it was over, there was a lively discussion about how it compared to the director’s earlier, more successful monster movie, The Host, and how it fit in with the group’s experiences with Korean cinema in general. Someone finally noticed me sulking in the corner, and I made the mistake of giving an honest answer to the question, “So, what did you think, Ian?”

I said that Thirst is not as good as Sex and the City 2.

Take a moment. Digest. Leave if you need to.

As you’ll see in a forthcoming review, I consider Sex and the City 2 a terrible movie. Its characters are awful; their predicaments are ridiculous; and the movie so studs its moral compass in black diamonds as to render it useless. But SATC2 is consistent, and it contains just enough schadenfreude to be periodically entertaining. Thirst, on the other hand, is a movie that begins with a solid premise and devolves into a two-plus-hour mess devoid of tone, purpose or a single relatable character.

Kang-ho Song stars as Sang-hyeon, a priest who volunteers to work at a modern day leper colony (though not technically leprosy, the patients suffer massive internal and external blood blisters that gradually eat their bodies). A recent crisis of faith has compelled him to commit suicide, though that same faith forbids him from doing so; working with lepers, it seems, is a happy medium. He succumbs to the virus, and despite a blood transfusion, Sang-hyeon dies. Moments after the doctors declare him dead, however, he jerks back to life.

Word of his miraculous recovery spreads and he becomes a local sensation. People from all over bombard him with prayers for help, including the mother of an ailing childhood friend, Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin). Sang-hyeon is invited to play Mahjong with Kang-woo’s family, and game night becomes a weekly event. Over time, the priest becomes smitten with Kang-woo’s wife, Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim); she’s spunky and dissatisfied, and is attracted to him despite his being covered in bandages and pulsating sores.

Yes, Sang-hyeon still has that pesky blood disease, but he discovers that the sores dissipate whenever he drinks human blood. He also discovers that he can fly and hear microscopic mites crawling on his arm. It seems the transfusion at the leper colony turned him into a vampire.

The first half hour of Thirst has great forward momentum. I dig the idea of a Catholic priest becoming a vampire, and all the possibilities of that premise. I can even accept the love story as a further complication, and see how it could tie everything together. But Park and co-writer Seo-Gyeong Jeong make the fatal Batman and Robin mistake of piling on more and more peripheral crap, to the point where the audience forgets what it was they were supposed to focus on in the first place.

In addition to the priest vampirism and love story, we’re presented with Tae-ju’s beating at the hands of Kang-woo; a plot to murder Kang-woo; the introduction and abrupt dismissal of Kang-woo’s ghost; the revelation that Tae-ju was lying about being beaten; Sang-hyeon’s murder of Tae-ju; Sang-hyeon’s resurrection of Tae-ju as a vampire; and Tae-ju’s undead killing spree.

Oh, we’re also treated to sub-plots involving Sang-hyeon’s blind, paraplegic bishop mentor’s desire to become immortal; a recurring comatose patient who serves only as the priest’s main source of food; Kang-woo’s grieving mother who lapses into a coma, and who becomes Sang-hyeon and Tae-ju’s house pet after witnessing Tae-ju’s death and rebirth; the execution of the Mahjong club; and lots and lots (and lots) of awkward, violent sex thrown in for flavor.

That may sound like the worst six-week-long HBO miniseries you’ve ever heard of, but Park Chan-wook crams it all in to two hours and thirteen minutes. That’s fifteen minutes less than Sex and the City 2, but it feels like seven hours. This is mostly due to the terrible editing and lack of transitions. The scenes pop so awkwardly that I felt like I was missing key moments in between; which is weird, since Park spends so much time on the sweaty, panting, wholly un-erotic sex scenes and no time explaining things like, say, why in the hell Sang-hyeon would bring his psycho ex-girlfriend back to life. Thirst goes on forever and has more climaxes than a Sasha Grey gangbang; I can count at least four moments when I thought the movie was (mercifully) coming to an end, but then proceeded to flop clumsily about for another twenty minutes.

My opinion of Thirst may be blasphemy to the legions of Park Chan-wook devotees; no doubt I just don’t “get” his work, and my lack of appreciation for the quirks of South Korean movies has blinded me to the director’s genius. That’s possible, but my rule of thumb regarding foreign films is that if a movie wouldn’t work in English, it’s not a good movie. If you were to replace the cast of Thirst with American actors, and change nothing else, it would still be awful. I love foreign films precisely because, in my experience, they tend to be more adult than their Hollywood counterparts. This movie is just silly, confused, and boring.

It’s also very derivative, which I find nearly unforgivable. Can we just agree—collectively, as film lovers—that the whole vampire-with-a-conscience thing is over? Between Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and now Thirst (and, I’m sure, scores of other low-rent pop), we’ve had more than a decade of sullen pretty-boy vampires who refuse to kill people. They serve only to eat up valuable plot time with bullshit moral dilemmas, and the stories always resolve with them killing someone anyway. So either we need to demand fiction in which a vampire holds true to his/its vegetarianism, or insist that the trend die altogether.

There’s also a good stretch of Thirst that—ahem—pays homage to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. Be it the creepy-bandaged-man-who-drinks-blood-to-heal-his-concealed-wouds motif or the woman-who-seduces-and-murders-strangers-to-feed-herself/her-boyfriend storyline, Thirst outright copies sequences from the 1987 horror classic; yet somehow managed to make me yawn through all of them (Thirst also rips off a popular 80s TV miniseries about a priest falling in love, but is not nearly as exciting as the pitch, “It’s The Thorn Birds meets Hellraiser!” would suggest).

This is the rare film of which I would welcome a Hollywood remake. I can just see some hot-shot twenty-something screenwriter stripping out all the filler and turning Thirst into a lean, ninety-minute vampire movie with fantastic gore and an actual love story. With a simple polish by, perhaps, Christopher Nolan—to add pathos and a clear message regarding the whole priest/vampire conundrum—you might have something special. For now, though, we’re stuck with Thirst, a movie more in love with itself than Sex and the City 2—and that’s saying something.