All right, what the hell is going on? How is it that for the second year in a row I’m completely enamored by a foreign vampire movie? How is this happening? Vampire movies aren’t supposed to be good, damn it, they aren’t supposed to do original things. They’re supposed to trivialize themes of love and darkness and pander to an annoying audience that eats it all up regardless of quality. But last year Let The Right One In went against the grain and became one of the best films (yes, not just horror films, FILMS) of the decade.
Now Park Chan-wook’s Thirst is hitting theaters in the US, and it’s my job to tell you that the internet has been performing a grave disservice to you, folks. Thirst is not a horror movie. Sure, it’s got moments of vicious, mind-numbing gore, and is way too bizarre for a mainstream audience to know what to make of, but it’s more of a love story than anything. A twisted and depraved love story, to be sure, but it’s one that warms the heart while it makes you cringe at all the violence.
Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a priest who volunteers at a local hospital, talking to patients and making sure they all get sent to their imaginary afterlives. We meet him as he’s questioning everything about his life and finally decides to volunteer in a medical experiment in Africa, possibly sacrificing his life in order to save others. He’s purposely infected with the incurable Emmanuel Virus (EV) which gives people horrible boils that spread all over and inside their bodies before finally killing them, but Sang-hyun somehow manages to make a complete recovery and survive.
He’s the only patient of 500 to do so.
News quickly spreads and people start flocking to the bandaged man of the cloth to pray for them and heal their wounds. He meets a few old childhood friends because of this, most significantly a girl named Tae-ju (played by the incredibly sexy and talented Kim Ok-bin) that he used to like as a kid, who is now locked into a loveless marriage to a man dying of cancer Like many others, her husband claims that his cancer went into remission after being prayed over by the priest. Sang-hyun is miserable at this attention because even though people claim to have been healed by him he knows it’s only psychosomatic.
Soon after, his EV relapses in the harshest way ever, and he starts coughing up enormous amounts of blood, seemingly dying in the night. He wakes up the next day with the sunlight burning his skin and he hides in the closet till nighttime to find out that he’s got urges for that sweet red human juice.
While Sang-hyun is coping with his new reality (and stopping by the hospital for a quick drink now and then) he strikes up a relationship with Tae-ju and her family, heading over once a week for a game of majong. It’s obvious that there’s sexual tension in the air between the two, until it explodes in a rage of passion one night. Things seem doomed for the two from the start, as secrets start to be revealed from both sides and their plans for the future become more and more depraved.
I’m sure you know a couple that’s absolutely horrible for each other, yet absolutely perfect in the same way. There’s a lid for every pot, as the saying goes, and fucked-up individuals can find people who complete them, even if it’s not the conventional definition of love.
The couple in Thirst is exactly this. While the film does have its very sweet and cute moments this is a love story for deviants. If it were about a priest and a married woman alone it would make for the ultimate taboo, but their relationship becomes increasingly disturbed and violent as the story progresses. No matter how decent Sang-hyun tries to be he ends up destroying lives and relationships and becomes exactly what he hoped he wouldn’t.
If this sounds like an incredibly dark film, well, it is and it isn’t. Korean films are unlike any other in the world as they have no problem taking you from an incredibly dramatic and serious scene right into a slapstick comedy. It’s frequently very funny, in fact, and the silly humor helps to steel you against the darker moments of the film.
The one complaint you could make is that the movie doesn’t seem to know when to end. At 133 minutes it’s quite a long experience, and although it moves at a fast clip you’ll note a moment that could have been the perfect ending and knocked a good 20 minutes off the running time.
But for a film that explores so many themes, those of sexuality, religion, love and humanity- you can easily allow the film some leeway. There’s a reason that Park Chan-wook is one of the most beloved directors of our time, and Thirst is yet another example of what a prodigious filmmaker he is.
Thirst opens today in NYC, LA and San Francisco and will expand into more theaters over the coming weeks. Check out Focus Feature’s page for a list of all the theaters.