I’ve said it before in the pages of Asian Week and I’ll say it again-Korean director Park Chan-Wook may be the most interesting filmmaker working in the world today. If Thirst, his latest effort, doesn’t quite rank with his best films like Old Boy and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, it’s still more deliriously inventive than the vast majority of junk out there that gets mistaken for cinematic brilliance.
Korean superstar Song Kang-Ho (The Host) plays Sang-hyun, an idealistic Catholic priest who volunteers for a risky medical experiment to eradicate a deadly virus. He is the only test subject who survives but not without a cost. Sang-hyun becomes a vampire-craving blood, invincible to physical harm and unable to stand the sunlight.
He also finds himself desiring other things like Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), the unhappy wife of his childhood friend. The two embark on an erotic and dangerous affair that’s equal parts Dracula and Double Indemnity.
In my recent review of Blood: The Last Vampire, I wrote about how hard it is these days to tell an original vampire story without a sense of “been there, done that.” And this is the very thing that keeps Thirst from reaching the heights of Park’s other masterworks. Park, and frequent co-writer/collaborator Chung Seo-kyung, attack the vampire mythology with as much originality as they can muster but they can’t completely shake the feeling that this is a genre that has very few surprises left in it.
But one of the best decisions the filmmakers make is to strip away some of the sillier aspects of the mythos-stakes through the heart, crosses and holy water, garlic as vampire repellant. The only traditional weakness these blood-suckers are vulnerable to is sunlight. This is a deliberate concession on Park’s part that he uses to brilliant dramatic effect in the film’s climax.
The ending demonstrates what works best about the film-Park’s willingness to dig deeper into the genre’s roots and attack the story with a mixture of his typical philosophical bent and oddball gallows humor that stamps his work with his distinctive signature.
If no new ground is broken with Thirst, it’s still a superb example of what a genre film can be. The cast, led by Song’s charismatic everyman, brings a level of commitment and realism usually absent from most horror movies.
The film’s technical elements are also uniformly excellent. Working with long-time cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, Park continues to create some of the most striking images in cinema. In his hands, a moment as simple as showing Song hanging upside down from the roof is imbued with a sense of visual opera.
Fans of the genre should definitely check out Thirst to see what a master brings to such familiar material. Others may not understand completely what the hubbub is about, but they’ll still be party to a cinematic experience unlike any other you’re likely to have this summer at the multiplex.
Philip W. Chung is a writer and Co-Artistic Director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble which is in its final season. Lodestone’s production of Closer Than Ever runs August 8-30, Thursday-Saturday 8 PM and Sunday 2 PM, at GTC Burbank, 1111-B W, Olive Ave, Burbank, CA 91506. Tickets are $20 with discounts. For more info: www.lodestonetheatre.org. To RSVP: (323) 993-7245.
*Photo from http://www.hancinema.net/korean_movie_Thirst.php
Read Dino-Ray Ramos’ interview with director Park Chan Wook: