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August 10, 2009 | by  | in Film |
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Thirst opens with an obese man in a hospital who relates to the film’s central character, altruistic priest Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), a tale of unusual kindness. In this story he buys a sponge cake and keeps it close to him all day, eager to finally eat it. However, he sees two homeless, starving sisters walking along the road on the other side, and despite his desperate desire to eat the cake, he gives it to the sisters.

After this story the obese man falls promptly into a coma, never to be heard from again.

Park Chan-wook, the man behind such international hits as Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Joint Security Area, sets the film’s tone up in this one sequence—a film of cruelty, of demented and schizoid sensibilities, of bad things happening to good people, of sadism, of masochism.

At least, that’s what he wants you to think.

In reality, Thirst is an incredibly interesting, captivating film, stylistically, thematically, and narrative-wise. Chan-wook takes the vampire myth and makes it his bitch, playing with, subverting, lampshading, adhering to and generally messing around with the conventions and developments we’ve come to know and trust. Gone are your generic charmers who only come out at night; gone are your villainous monstrosities; gone are your sparkly pieces of wannabe vampire bullcrap—here we have the tormented soul of Sang-hyeon, a progressive priest who becomes a vampire after selflessly volunteering himself for a vaccine trial. As the character tries to reassert his morals in a body and mind that “lust after all sinful pleasures”, Song Kang-ho makes us both afraid of and worried about Sang-hyeon, giving a restrained, layered performance that effectively runs counter to both the more erratic, lively performance of leading lady Ok-vin Tim and to the film in general.

Of course, Thirst is flawed. Incredibly flawed. It’s tonally all over the place, and it’s not hard to experience whiplash as it switches from viciously black comedy to high drama all in the space of 0.34 seconds. It’s heavy-handed in the way it deals with themes of personal faith and the nature of disease, particularly in the occasionally-annoyingly verbose first act. It’s occasionally flabby and edited in a rather ad-hoc manner. And for a film about vampires tempted by “all sinful pleasures”, it’s surprisingly tame (particularly when compared to Oldboy).

But all that doesn’t stop Thirst from being one of the most intoxicatingly different and interesting films I’ve ever seen. Chan-wook plays games with the audience that isolate you and pull you back in, repulse you and excite you, make you laugh and make you gag. Chan-wook exerts his position as one of the world’s most innovative and intriguing directors, with an aesthetically one-of-a-kind film that challenges the audience and demands it respond.

And for a film like this, a response is the least it deserves.

Directed by Chan-wook Park
Written by Seo-Gyeong Jeong and Chan-wook Park
With Kang-ho Song, Ok-vin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-kyun Shin and In-hwan Park

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