This 2020, every Tuesday I will reviewing a horror film, and this week we have 2009’s Thirst
Park Chan-wook is one of the most prolific directors from South Korea still working today. Working for over the past 25 years, he has created both film and television projects and his work has ranged from a variety of different genres, including thriller, action, mystery, erotic drama, romantic comedy and – with his 2009 film, Thirst – horror.
Thirst, Chan-wook’s 7th feature, centres on Sang-hyun (played by Song Kang-ho), a Catholic priest, who volunteers to be a patient of the “Emmanuel Virus” but ends up transforming into a vampire after receiving from an unknown origin. Sang-hyan, a sensitive soul, struggles to cope with his new found lust for blood. Meanwhile, Sang-hyan reunites with his childhood friend, Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) and meets his mother, Mrs. Ra (Kim Hoe-sook) and his unfulfilled and bored housewife wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin).
Chan-wook is often held in high regard as one of South Korea’s most prolific and famous filmmakers, along with Bong Joon-ho, who has famously just won four Oscars for his work on the South Korean megahit, Parasite. Chan-wook takes the same approach to making his films as Joon-ho, often including black humour and some sudden genre and tonal shifts.
A good companion piece to Thirst, in fact, is The Handmaiden, his 2016 film. The Handmaiden is very much a chamber piece which centres around 4 main characters in a secure location, and our perspectives of them change drastically over the course of the film. This is very much a kin to Thirst, as it mainly centres on our two central characters of Sang-hyun and Tae-ju, and overtime, our views on them largely change. Sang-hyun, who starts off as sensitive and conflicted and then turns out to be more brutal and Tae-ju, who starts off as a quiet and sweet but bored housewife, shows herself to be more manipulative and ruthless.
Ok-bin and Sang-ho are also so brilliant in the two lead roles. Sang-ho, who has starred in a variety of both Chan-wook and Joon-ho’s films (recently starring in Parasite, which he was very much snubbed of a Oscar nomination), and continues to be one of South Korea’s most prolific actors. He is really terrific here, and gives the audience a relatable and sympathetic lead. Ok-bin is the real find here, however, and it’s even more astounding for her as, unlike Sang-ho, she was very young and un-experienced when it was filmed. She is utterly great here, as she really manages to play off all of Tae-ju’s ever-changing and developing personality.
The only real criticism with the whole film, however, would be that although Ok-bin is great and Tae-ju is a utterly fascinating character, Sang-ho’s Sang-hyeon ends up oddly sidelined. This is a shame, as Kang-ho remains as brilliant as ever, and Sang-hyeon is a great character, but his character arc ends up not being as polished as Tae-ju’s.
The real strength with the film, however, is how the film reinvigorates the vampire genre, in how it takes a melancholic and quite sad approach to it. It seems like some lesser films seem to focus on the all the joys of the lifestyle (like the immortality and the ever-lasting youth), this film emphasis more on Sang-hyeon’s loneliness and his classic dilemma of not wanting to drink human blood, but still have a huge craving for it.
The film also has a lot of body horror and gore, which is really welcome. This is especially true of the opening of the film, when Sang-hyeon is getting the virus, and there are many very gory scenes showing the effect on the disease. The body horror really gives the film an edge and a bit to it, but never sinks into being exploitative or nasty.
Much like a lot of Chan-wook’s films, the film has some great cinematography. Chan-wook is a very visual director, especially showcasing this in his 2013 film, Stoker, and this is also true here. This is particularly true of some wonderful sequences in which Sang-hyeon and Tae-ju are flying through the city, and the results are very strange, beautiful and mesmerising. Also, throughout the film, Chan-wook is really great at dealing with the more fantastical aspects of the script. The sequences were the various vampire characters fly or float off the ground have the right amount of silliness to it, but still feel grounded and quite real.
In conclusion, Chan-wook’s Hitchcockian film/ Vampire horror film hybrid is utterly strange, bonkers and really great, and continues Chan-wook’s legacy as one of South Korea’s best living filmmakers.
Next time: Prince of Darkness (1987)