Just about any time there’s a wave of movies coming out of a country or region there’s almost always one particularly famous movie that spearheads the wave. For the French New Wave it was Jules and Jim, for Italian Neo-realism it was Rome: Open City, and for the 90s American independent scene it was Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I bring this up because the movie which played this role in the “Asia Extreme” sub-genre that’s been huge in genre circles as of late has been the film Oldboy, from the South Korean director Park Chan-Wook. That revenge epic has become a pretty substantial cult hit and has lead viewers to other Chan-Wook films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, and Joint Security Area. These are all strange and kind of twisted films with wicked undercurrents of pitch black comedy. Sometimes I think he goes a bit too far, as was the case of those two films with “vengeance” in the titles, but in spite of his habits of extravagance he’s still one of the pre-eminent directors of international genre cinema. His newest film, Thirst, has generated a lot of excitement because it deals with vampirism and the combination of Park Chan-Wook and vampires sounds way too good to resist.
The film is about a catholic priest named Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) who volunteers for a very dangerous medical experiment in which he’ll be infected by a fatal illness. Sang-hyun surprisingly survives this test while the other forty-nine subjects succumb to the illness; possibly because of a mysterious blood transfusion he was given. After he returned to his duties as a priest, he comes to learn that after the blood transfusion he can’t stand the sunlight and begun to have an urge for blood and sex. Meanwhile, Sang-hyun finds himself drawn to a young woman named Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), who’s married to a sick man (Shin Ha-kyun) that Sang-hyun has been counseling in his capacity as a priest. Tae-ju is similarly attracted to Sang-hyun’s newfound powers and the two begin a depraved affair, but love and lust can get pretty weird when bloodsucking monsters are involved.
The vampires here aren’t too far removed from your typical nosferatus, they can’t take the sun, they need to drink blood, they have superhuman strength, and while they can’t fly or transform they can jump really high and land on their feet. Perhaps the biggest departure from the average vampire is that they don’t have any fangs and need to pierce their victim’s jugular with a blade before they can begin to slurp down their plasma. The larger alteration to the typical vampire story is that Sang-hyun is a priest and that he feels a very inherently catholic type of guilt about his situation. The character never wanted the situation he’s in but he’s being driven both by necessity and by urges to chomp down on innocent people and by an overwhelming lust to do some very un-priest-like things with Tae-ju, who is a lot more comfortable with being a creature of the night than Sang-hyun is.
The film has a very promising set-up and it more or less delivers on this by the end, especially in the last twenty minutes where the movie really comes alive. Unfortunately I think this movie is really marred by a laggy and muddled middle act which plays out like some sort of supernatural version of The Last Tango in Paris. Large quantities of screen time are taken up by scenes of Sang-hyun and Tae-ju fang-banging in their apartment. The whole affair sub-plot just plays out in a very awkward way and the dynamics of Tae-ju’s family are clouded by a lot of inaccessible comedy that I didn’t think much of. The relationship does prove to be more interesting than the similarly oddball romance in his 2006 film I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, and there is payoff to a lot of it at the end, but it’s tough sailing to get to that point.
This is unfortunate because this is a movie that could have lived up to last year’s vampire film Let the Right One In, which I’ve grown to like a lot more since my first viewing. I can’t say that this works as well as foreign counter-programming to that other vampire series which will go unnamed, but it has its moments. If anything I’m just disappointed that this wasn’t better than it was. In its best moments it comes close to matching Park Chan-Wook’s work in Oldboy, but the uneven and padded really brings down the film in a good way. It’s worth seeing for the cream that will float to the top of your memories shortly after seeing, but the actual churning is quite a chore.
*** out of Four