Quite possibly my favorite director on the planet right now is Park Chan-wook, who brought us such classics as JSA, OLDBOY, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and LADY VENGEANCE. For this legendary Korean director to take on the horror genre is like having Paul Thomas Anderson turn to horror. While Chan-wook has been primed for the genre with the amount of bloodshed in his previous films, he also took his love for lengthy exposition-filled drama along for the ride, which just doesn’t digest well in horror. At the hands of a less competent director, THIRST could have been an abomination, but thankfully Chan-wook delivers something above par that should probably be met with two cans of Red Bull.
THIRST finds Korea’s leading man, Song Kang-ho (The Host), as a much-loved priest who becomes a vampire after a failed medical experiment; he becomes a tortured and depraved soul.
Park Chan-wook is known for his character pieces and his ability to really mold a personality for his protagonist. While typically this works for Chan-wook, it hinders THIRST a great deal. The film carries an overcomplicated plot that is not only confusing, but also drags the film to an unnecessary 133-minute length. There are unusually subplots such as one involving a vengeful spirit that’s supposed to provide a level of comic relief. THIRST is a solid drama for most of 133 minutes, so when it goes over-the-top for these segments, it literally takes you out of the movie. In fact, whenever Chan-wook attempts to throw comedy into the film, whether it be in-your-face or subtly, it’s completely lost in translation (like many Asian comedies). Even though Park has said in interviews that he loves the comedy aspect and really would like audiences to relish in it, the movie should have been 30 minutes shorter (at least) as most of the comedy could have easily been trimmed.
With that said, THIRST succeeds on so many other levels that it’s hard to focus on the negative. The most impressive aspect of the screenplay (co-written by Chan-wook and Seo-Gyeong Jeong) are the dueling leads. Sang-hyun plays a priest who believes that life is precious and volunteers for a secret vaccine development project to help save lives from a deadly virus. He becomes infected and returns to life as a blood-sucking vampire. He is also conflicted between the carnal desire for blood and his faith, which forbids him to kill, therefore leading him to a hospital where he drinks from people in comas. He meets Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), who is married to his childhood friend. The two fall in love and she becomes the pawn that forces him to choose evil over good. While he still holds down his principals as a Priest, he feels like a traitor to his faith and begins to bend his own rules – until they break. Tae-ju is filled with darkness as she seduces Sang-huyn into killing her husband (his friend) and eventually he kills her as well, but his love for her causes him to reanimate her as a vampire. From this point on Chan-wook does the tango with audience as the two polar opposite vampires battle for control over one another. One of the strongest aspects of THIRST is this physical and narrative battle between these two, who both love each other, can’t live without each other, and yet aren’t compatible in the least. But in an odd and beautiful way completely contrast each other.
For the hardcore horror fans, while most of the film is loaded with heavy exposition, there are still some pretty bloody and violent moments throughout. Chan-wook takes a page from George A. Romero’s MARTIN and brings the realism to THIRST. He gives Sang-huyn disgusting blisters when he doesn’t feed, when the duo have sex he fills the audience’s ears with gross sound effects and has the characters lick each other’s armpits and feet, and when the blood flows none of it sounds appealing (the slurping sounds are disgusting). There is nothing enchanting about THIRST; even the look of the film itself if darker and duller than any of Park Chan-wook’s previous works.
It’s quite unfortunate that THIRST never got trimmed and tightened up, as it really is just way too long. What the film really lacks is momentum; anyone with an attention span as short as mine is guaranteed to squirm through most of the 133 minutes. Beyond the pacing issues, this vampire tale is one worthy of seeing in a theater, just muster up enough energy to stay awake through it all – the finale is definitely worthy of your full attention.