Thirst, the new film by director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Moon is the Sun’s Dream), has two firsts going for it which set it apart in the vampire genre: It’s the first vampire film ever made in Korea, and it’s the first Korean film to feature full-frontal male nudity by its lead (Kang-ho Song — No. 3, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). For a vampire film, it’s an impressive undertaking. As a film overall…let me get back to you on that.
Father Sang-hyeon (Song) is a devout man of God who gives freely of his time at the local hospital, caring for the patients there. Yet he confides in Father Noh (In-hwan Park), the blind priest and mentor, that he has grown increasingly dispirited, due to the sad fortunes of the patients hanging on by a thread, and with the world in general. Looking for a way out, Sang-hyeon volunteers for a dangerous medical experiment to cure the dreaded EV virus. Almost 500 people have died from the treatment, but after a hasty blood transfusion from unnamed sources, Father Sang-hyeon is back to normal. Better in fact, because he quickly comes to realize that all his senses have improved dramatically, the only drawback being that he now craves human blood to survive and keep the virus at bay. When he’s reunited with sickly childhood friend Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and his beautiful yet restless wife Tae-joo (Ok-vin Kim), the wife and the priest begin coming up with a way to exploit his newfound abilities to rid her of Kang-woo so they can live happily ever after.
Thirst succeeds on several levels, most obviously in its serious treatment of the vampire genre. There are no suspiciously well-coiffed heartthrobs here as there are in Twilight. Sang-hyeon looks like a real person, and his powers fall well within the established annals of vampire lore, and director Chan-wook does an excellent job of introducing us to them, especially during a uniquely shot scene of Sang-hyeon jumping from rooftop to rooftop with Tae-joo in his arms, showing off his powers to her. The visceral nature of the horror of vampirism is there as well, as the director pulls no punches—literally—when it’s time to show how fragile mortals are as compared to what a vampire’s strength can do. The R rating is also well-earned due to a couple of very intense sex scenes. It also helps that the film is carried by an extremely talented group of actors.
Where the movie falls short of greatness is not in its use of humor, but that there is so much blatant humor on display, in what is definitely supposed to be a horror film. Some of the humor—the best parts of it—grows organically from the storyline, but a good deal of it doesn’t, and seems to be there just to break up the horror scenes. To the director’s credit however, the last act of the film carries a great deal of remorse, menace and shocks within.
As for whether I like Thirst as a film overall…upon reflection, I like it better than I first did upon seeing it, and perhaps that’s part of what will carry it onward to box office success: First, if audiences are able to get past the subtitles, and if people realize that this film will probably take two sittings to firmly get a handle on all the subtle nuances that lie within. Thirst is a movie that needs to be viewed more than once in order to appreciate it fully. But if one is willing to devote the proper amount of time to it, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that the movie will definitely leave its mark at the box office.