Park Chan Wook, Korean director of two of the biggest cult hits in recent Asian cinema with “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and “Old Boy”, caused a great deal of excitement on announcing that his next project was to be a fresh take on the time honoured vampire tale – not least as it seemed to promise a return to blood-letting after his oddball comedy “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK”. With the film inspired by rather than based upon Emile Zola’s 1867 novel “Therese Raquin”, anticipation was further heightened by the casting of Song Kang Ho in the lead role, one of the country’s most popular and acclaimed actors, recently seen around the world in “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” and “The Host”.
Following a successful international theatrical run and a joint Jury Prize win at Cannes in 2009, the film now finally arrives on Korean DVD. This release should be of particular interest, since it includes both the Theatrical Cut, and a special extended version, which had previously screened at the Pusan film festival and which runs around 10-15 minutes longer.
The film sees Song taking on the complex role of a priest called Sang Hyun, whose desire to help the sick and suffering of the world leads him to volunteer himself for a medical experiment. Unfortunately, the virus he is injected with mutates, almost killing and then transforming him into a vampire, with superhuman powers and a dreadful thirst for blood. Although crowds of people believing him to have miraculous healing talents begin to gather at his church, Sang Hyun’s behaviour becomes decidedly less than holy, as he embarks on an affair with Tae Ju (Kim Ok Bin, also in the crazed and colourful “Dasepo Naughty Girls”), the wife of his childhood friend Kang Woo (Shin Ha Kyun, excellent in the eccentric hitman drama “No Mercy For the Rude”).
Even at its most basic, the very idea behind “Thirst” is fascinating, seeing an Asian director trying his hand at one of the most famous Western myths. However, although the film does play upon the traditional trappings of vampire cinema, this is not to say that it is by any means straightforward, or indeed a horror outing at all. Instead, Park uses the central conceit to explore the darker recesses of the human psyche in his usual compelling and unflinching fashion, charting the priest’s gradual descent into depravity. What makes the film such fascinating viewing is the way in which he not only engages, but also implicitly involves the viewer in the protagonist’s degeneracy. Despite his condition and deeds, Sang Hyun remains an identifiably human and indeed sympathetic figure throughout, with his wickedness initially stemming from weakness and basic desire, and with his succumbing to temptation seeming only too natural and inevitable. Through this, Park debates the nature of good and evil, and the role of religion in human morality, in a surprisingly clever and subtle manner, and though the plot is engaging enough and reasonably unpredictable in its own right, the film is essentially one driven by its ideas and grander themes.
Song Kang Ho is excellent in the lead, and brings not only the sense of internal conflict necessary to make the role convincing, but also an air of effectively understated menace and violence. Kim Ok Bin’s astonishing performance is if anything even more impressive, with her character arc taking her from put upon oddball to full on femme fatale, and indeed the film is arguably about Tae Ju as much as Sang Hyun. Her transformation is certainly no less startling, and she serves as a perfect counterpoint the tortured priest, showing at times wide eyed innocence, playfulness, and terrifying ruthlessness. As a result, their relationship is both convincing and oddly moving, charting as it does the tragedy of two repressed individuals struggling to cope with their new freedom. Perhaps surprisingly, the film is moving and even oddly romantic during its latter stages, all the more so for its absence of obvious moral judgements.
As ever, Park injects a fair amount of black humour into the proceedings, and this prevents the film from ever becoming heavy going, being frequently very amusing in places. A definite air of playful irony pervades almost every frame, though he refrains from taking too much mean spirited glee from the perversion of his protagonist’s honest righteousness. Needless to say, this is accompanied by plenty of blood and violence, though Park weaves these into the film very effectively, and they complement its aims rather than being simply thrown in for shock value. There is also a fair amount of explicit sex and eroticism, more so than in the director’s previous efforts, which again plays an important part in its character development and thematic journey.
The extended version of the film really does make a difference, with its added scenes further fleshing out Park’s depiction of Sang Hyun’s conflicts as his condition develops. Without wishing to add any spoilers, this helps to make sense of some of his behaviour during the latter stages of the film, in particular with regards to his elderly priest confessor figure. The extra footage similarly adds further nuances to the relationship between Sang Hyun and Tae Ju, accentuating the tension as their bond turns sour. Although the lack of any new sex or violence in these scenes, and the fact that they in effect make an already long film even longer may come as a disappointment for some, they do serve a very definite purpose, making the themes and characters even richer.
The result is perhaps Park’s best film yet, and arguably his most philosophical and thoughtful, even more so in this extended version. If “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK” proved that as a director there was far more to his talents than violence and ghoulish plot twists, “Thirst” clearly shows that he is capable of substance as well as style. Boosted by superb turns by Song Kang Ho and Kim Ok Bin, in one of the best and most challenging performances from a Korean actress to date, the film is one which should certainly appeal to a wider audience than just fans of his earlier works of stylised brutality.
Chan-wook Park (director) / Seo-Gyeong Jeong, Chan-wook Park (screenplay)
CAST: Kang-ho Song … Priest Sang-hyeon
Ok-bin Kim … Tae-ju
Hae-sook Kim … Lady Ra
Ha-kyun Shin … Kang-woo
In-hwan Park … Priest Noh
Dal-su Oh … Yeong-doo
Young-chang Song … Seung-dae
Mercedes Cabral … Evelyn
Eriq Ebouaney … Immanuel