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January 2010


cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-vin, Shin Ha-kyun, and Kim Hae-sook

director: Park Chan-wook

129 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Palisades Tartan DVD Region 2 retail
[released 25 January]

RATING: 7/10
review by Max Cairnduff


Thirst (aka: Bakjwi) is the latest film from Korean director Park Chan-wook, most famous for his revenge trilogy, and in particular Oldboy. It's an ambitious film that takes Emile Zola's novel Th�r�se Raquin as its source, transplanting it from 19th century Paris to modern Korea, adding vampires but otherwise staying pretty faithful to the book's story. Thirst was a joint winner of the jury prize at the Cannes film festival.

Song Kang-ho plays Sang-hyun, a Catholic priest who volunteers to trial an experimental vaccine, a trial that involves him being infected with a fatal virus. He is the trial's sole survivor, becoming a focus for the faithful and the desperate who believe him a miracle, and who pray for him to intervene in turn for them. What they don't know is that a last-minute blood transfusion somehow left him a vampire, the virus is only held at bay while he drinks the blood he increasingly craves.

Sang-hyun is tracked down by the mother of an old school friend, Lady Ra (Kim Hae-sook). Her son, Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) has cancer and she wants Sang-hyun to heal him. Kang-woo recovers, and soon Sang-hyun is playing mah-jong with Lady Ra, Kang-woo (who remains very weak), and Kang-woo's wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). Tae-ju works in Lady Ra's shop, sitting there day after day without a customer in sight, and in the evenings she must attend to Kang-woo's every feeble whim. Before too long, Sang-hyun and Tae-ju are lovers, obsessed with each other, only Kang-woo stands in the way of their being together forever...

As the film progresses, Tae-ju joins Sang-hyun as a vampire, but where he drinks blood from comatose hospital patients who won't miss it, being careful not to take too much, she uses her powers to kill strangers saying that blood tastes better that way. Sang-hyun accepts being a vampire as a fate that has befallen him, Tae-ju revels in it. Vampirism isn't the only corrupting force in Sang-hyun's life.

Thirst isn't worth watching for the plot. I've read Th�r�se Raquin, and the film shares the book's flaws. It builds up well, the obsessive relationship between Sang-hyun and Tae-ju is gripping, but the second half is often just melodramatic, increasingly improbable and ultimately a little ridiculous. The addition of vampires doesn't make that any worse, but it doesn't make up for the book's flaws either. So why is it worth watching? There are a number of reasons, the acting, some incredible set-pieces and the sheer quality of Park Chan-wook's filmmaking.

Song Kang-ho is simply excellent. Sang-hyun is a troubled man before his transformation, beating himself to suppress his own desires. As his vampirism takes hold, those desires become stronger and he becomes an expert at reconciling what he wants with what he believes. Vampirism here is evil, Sang-hyun starts out a good man and as his condition takes hold he becomes increasingly (but never entirely) a monster. Song Kang-ho gives humanity to all of this, makes it all believable, and his performance alone makes the film worthwhile.

Kim Ok-vin is also excellent. Her character moves from oppressed drudge, to femme fatale, to murderous vampire, and while the character is at times a little on the annoying side Kim Ok-vin herself is never less than convincing. It's remarkable how she moves from a presence in the background of her early scenes, to a dominating and highly sexual presence right at the foreground of the later ones.

Thirst has some wonderful images: Sang-hyun at the sanatorium, where he tests the anti-viral, playing his flute and then vomiting blood over it. Sang-hyun and Tae-ju painting their apartment white and setting up a television screen showing video images of the daylight world outside that they can no longer join. There's a constant consciousness in the film of the use of colour and shade, a visual sense that's genuinely exciting.

The film isn't just composition; there are scenes with tremendous power. The sex is among the more intense I've seen on screen, the characters shaking with the force of their own passion. The violence, when it occurs, is sudden and shocking. Smaller moments are equally impressive, such as when Sang-hyun and Tae-ju return to the mah-jong table seconds after sex and make casual conversation with Lady Ra and Kang-woo's friends, slipping in double entendres that those around them fail to see.

Lastly, it's also, at times, extremely funny. Thirst is a Korean film, and like most Korean cinema it mixes drama with comedy in a way most western films don't. Park Chan-wook isn't afraid of mixing the absurd and the comic with the horrific. That mix is something I enjoy in Korean cinema, but it is worth being aware of it as otherwise the move from one mood to another could seem jarring.

The plot then isn't much, but the acting, the imagery, the individual scenes, those are excellent. Thirst is a film of its parts; a film that might have been better had it stayed less faithful to its source material, but a film I still intend to buy when it's commercially released on DVD.

So, with all that, why only a rating of seven..? Preview versions of DVDs typically come with some text on the screen to indicate that they are preview versions, usually in one of the corners or along the top or bottom of the screen. That's sensible; it means releasing previews won't lead to the film being pirated before the DVD even comes out. Unfortunately, with Thirst the preview warning language was unusually large filling a large portion of the screen, often obscuring characters' faces and making certain scenes hard to view. On top of that, every ten minutes a copyright warning flashed on to the middle of the screen, and when that happened it meant that most of the screen couldn't be seen.

I sympathise entirely with distributors wanting to protect their property, almost every film I review has something of this sort, but on this occasion the warning text was so intrusive it at times made the film hard to watch. In the end, I have to grade the film I saw, not what I think the film would be without that level of security text.

I saw a pre-release version of the film which did not come with extras; at the time of writing I don't know what will be included in the final DVD release.

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