Monday, October 3, 2011


I enjoy a wide variety of movies (if I do say so myself), but I have lost touch with one of my favorite genres: weird-ass Asian movies.  I've barely been making time for the easy-to-follow stuff (martial arts movies, Yakuza flicks, etc.) in recent years, so it's not surprising that I haven't seen any of the WTF stuff that I love --- things like Takashi Miike movies or Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl --- in years.  In fact, even though I really, really enjoyed Oldboy, I had not followed up on any of Chan-wook Park's other offerings.  Well, that trend ends with Chan-wook's most recent feature film, Thirst.

There are three pretty distinct acts to Thirst, each with its own extensive exposition.  They are not officially broken into different parts, but it's much easier to digest if you approach them with that idea.  I'll simplify things for you.  A Catholic priest, Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song), accidentally becomes a vampire while volunteering as a guinea pig for a cure to a deadly disease.  He's not your typical movie vampire; for starters, he's Catholic.  He doesn't grow fangs, but he is vulnerable to sunlight and has super speed, strength, invulnerability, and enhanced senses.  He's a nice vamp, though, and opts to take his blood from comatose hospital patients instead of killing people.  That's not creepy at all; it's considerate to non-comatose folks.  Act two has Sang-hyun reintroduced to an old childhood friend, Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin).  Kang-woo is obnoxious and annoying, but otherwise harmless.  He lives with his domineering mother and his timid wife, Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim).  Due to a common history (both were orphans) and common emotional states (both are ridiculously depressed), Sang-hyun and Tae-ju find themselves drawn together.  I mean that in an emotional sense.  They get to the physical stuff shortly thereafter.  Of course, a vampire priest having naked time with a friend's wife isn't something that comes without (Catholic) guilt.  Just as obviously, a depressed super-being that suddenly finds happiness isn't going to let something like guilt stand in his way.  Act three is the logical and mostly awesome fallout from Act two.
Really?  What was your first clue, Dracula?

Kang-ho Song does a good job with a tough role.  He begins as a depressed priest, discovers sin and indulges in his lust (for several things), and shows off a monstrous side, too.  All the while, though, his actions make sense for his character; his noble core remains intact, despite the horrors he commits.  As much as I appreciated Song's competence, Ok-bin Kim is the real draw to Thirst.  She is able to convey hopeless depression, sadomasochism, and crazy eyes in consecutive scenes and still be appealing.  She was most entertaining in the third act, but her character's development wouldn't have packed the punch it did without her doing a first-rate job earlier in the film.  I also really liked how well she conveyed a gradual attraction to the priest.  The rest of the cast was okay, but no one was particularly noteworthy.

One of the reasons these actors are so successful in these demanding roles is due to the script.  Chan-wook Park likes to write his own screenplays, and he does a good job building these characters up slowly and letting them reach natural narrative conclusions.  Park was also able to include a surprising amount of humor to the film, which I was surprised at; I'll admit that the more slapstick stuff was kind of clumsy, but I appreciated the subtle jokes.  While I think the characterization in the scripts is fabulous, I didn't care for the script as a whole.  Thirst is a long movie, with over two hours of vampire priest time.  With its unusual three-act structure, there are some subplots that are not at all necessary:
  • Wait...the priest does magic tricks?
  • What was with the campground full of "miracle priest" followers?  Was that a cult?
  • Did we really need surreal fantasy moments involving sex and a corpse?
Answers: I guess.  I dunno, I think so.  And no, not at all.
There's just a lot of balls up in the air here, and the over-complexity of this story hurts the overall pace of the movie.  As for Chan-wook Park's direction, this confirms in my mind that he's ridiculously talented.  This is a gorgeous movie, even though it is occasionally very dim and washed-out.  He has a great handle on the main characters and his cinematography is excellent.  In particular, I liked his use of color in the film, even when it was used simply to provide contrast.

But enough artsy stuff --- what about the horror?  While I wouldn't say that this is a film that strives to frighten you, there is more than enough sex and gore to make this worth a horror fan's while.  It's not just the copious amounts of blood, though --- it's the disgusting sound effects that make these scenes gross.  Suffice to say, if you don't like the sound of slurping, this is not the movie for you.  There is a lot of sex in this movie, too, and it's not always the romantic kind; theirs is a violent, breaking-the-skin-with-your-bite, armpit-licking, foot-in-mouth kind of desperately ravenous love that probably isn't meant to be shared with a large audience.
Pictured above: violence, not sex.  Maybe.
While there is plenty of sex and blood in the first two-thirds of the movie, the final third is the stuff of horror movies.  We get to see the vampire kid gloves come off, and there are some very cool scenes that show off how ruthless vampires can be.

What I liked best about Thirst is that it approached the vampire sub-genre from a fresh perspective.  There is no extensive mythology or any character that has walked the Earth for centuries.  This is an accident and bad things are happening.  This film also points out some unexpected practicalities for the vampire lifestyle, like storing blood in Tupperware dishes in the refrigerator or cutting off a victim's feet to drain all the blood from the bodies.  More than anything else, though, Thirst transforms the blood lust of vampires into an all-around lust for life, and I found that refreshing.  While this is certainly not a masterpiece --- a lot of the ideas brought up in the first two-thirds of the movie are not resolved to my satisfaction --- the emotional intensity and unique approach Park takes more than makes this one worth seeing.  You've been warned, though: armpit licking.

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