After the critical and commercial misstep that was I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook returns to a dark but very familiar place with Thirst. Filled with extreme violence, explicit sex, dark humor, and impressive camerawork (plus a bit of fantasy), Thirst is the return of the Park Chan-Wook that worldwide audiences know and love. Despite the current popularity of the vampire genre, this is a surprisingly risky choice for Hollywood studio Universal's first Korean co-production, as Thirst is too extreme to be considered a commercially viable film anywhere outside of its native land, where Park, star Song Kang-Ho, and the film's Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival were enough to attract audiences. Even then, the film wasn't the blockbuster it was expected to be, quickly fizzing out at the box office after a huge opening.
Part of the film's middling success may have been due to its controversial story. Righteous priest Sang-Hyun (Song Kang-Ho) is tired of working at the hospital and standing on the sidelines only to watch the people that he helps die. This prompts him to participate in a dangerous medical experiment involving the deadly Emmanuel Virus. The virus almost immediately kills him, but he quickly comes back to life after a blood transfusion, and the miracle prompts the people back at home to revere him as a savior. One of these admirers happens to be the mother of his childhood friend Kang-Woo (Shin Ha-Kyun). However, Sang-Hyun finds himself slowly changing, and needs to ingest human blood constantly to keep the symptoms of the virus at bay. At the same time, he also finds himself developing another desire - this time for Kang-Woo's wife/cousin Tae-Ju (Kim Ok-Bin, in a bravura performance).
Loosely based on Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin, the story is fairly easy to figure out if one knows the source material, and Park takes it to an even darker place than the story suggests. While one expects the violence to be brutal, it's apparently the sex scenes that are getting even more attention. The scenes are explicit even by Western cinema standards, but they're really not more extreme than those in Park's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Oldboy - the latter of which featured a sex scene that was far more disturbing in nature than anything in Thirst. At least the sexual content never feels gratuitous - not even when it features full frontal nudity from Song Kang-Ho.
But one can't say the same for the violence. While Thirst does have its gruesome moments, the fantasy element means that the violence is eventually taken to a near-cartoonish level. As one can expect from a vampire movie, blood flows freely throughout the film, and as beautifully captured as it is by frequent Park collaborator Jeong Jeong-Hun, the over-the-top violence eventually becomes a source of comedy. However, Park assures his audiences that it's perfectly OK to laugh.
One thing that sets apart Thirst from the recent line of vampire films is that it strays away from traditional horror elements. Beneath all the blood and sex, Thirst is actually a tragic love story. However, Park is so obsessed with delivering all the important plot elements of Thérèse Raquin that the development of Sang-Hyun and Tae-Ju's affair is actually the least convincing part of the film. As a result, the emotional punch of previous Park films like JSA and Oldboy is nowhere to be found. Instead, Thirst is far more successful as a dark comedy, with some perverse gags that actually make the film as dark as it is surprisingly fun.
Despite its extreme elements and packed plot, Thirst does drag a bit in the middle, when Sang-Hyun's search for new sources of blood without committing murder eventually becomes a little repetitive. However, Park uses his strength as a visual-oriented director to keep the film engaging. The exquisite camerawork and art direction (including a room with completely white walls that plays a major role in the film's third act) are easily the strongest seen in Korean cinema all year, making the film's absence from the Grand Bell Nominations all the more confusing. Even though some of the special effects could be stronger – especially considering the film's partial Hollywood funding - Park's camerawork alone makes the film consistently intriguing to watch.
Nevertheless, it is time to wonder if Park has any other tricks up his sleeve. Even through Park has proven himself to be capable of more, since Oldboy his visual style has become so distinctive that it's become something he can fall back on to cover up shortcomings in pace or storytelling. As spectacular visually as Thirst is, the tiredness of Park's style is beginning to show. Then again, even if Park does intend on changing his style, there's no reason for his audiences not to have a little fun along the way, and that's exactly what Thirst is - classier-than-usual genre fun.
(Kevin Ma, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2009)