Dir: Park Chan-wook

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Focus Features

133 Minutes

Within the framework of horror, often the goal isn’t to create an entirely unique idea so much as to recreate and revive an existing one in the way inventors spend more time perfecting current patents. Horror then becomes something like the automobile industry, offering up mostly slightly tweaked versions of sedans and coups and every once in a while throwing out a model on the level of the hybrid: essentially the same as what was already in existence but internally radically different from everything consumers had come to expect. Picking out these milestones in horror is pretty easy, tracing the steps from Nosferatu to the Universal era Dracula to erotic vampires ushered in by The Hunger and now to Thirst, Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s new retooling of the genre that unfortunately fails to come through on its initial promise.

What is instantly noticeable about Thirst is that it is a film seemingly more interested in misleading the audience than scaring them. The film at first manipulates viewers into believing it is a work concerning the duality of faith; Father Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) is disappointed that serving the church prohibits him from doing much to help those who are truly suffering from diseases that should be curable. After witnessing one of his flock fall into a coma, he decides to offer himself to a medical lab associated with the church even though no one is quite sure what the lab does. Sang-hyeon quickly discovers that the lab is working on combating an especially grisly and fatal illness that shares some similarities with Ebola and in a conversation meant to parallel an earlier confession of one of his flock, he is sternly asked whether he has only volunteered out of the hopes of getting himself killed. This point becomes increasingly more important as Sang-hyeon slowly falls to the disease, only to be resurrected on the operating table after being declared dead.

The church and the flock decide without hesitation that Sang-hyeon was saved by God, that he was the recipient of a true miracle in an age where there are seemingly none. Sang-hyeon, by contrast, refuses to believe this, arguing that the prayer he obsessively observed worked on a psychological level and thus allowed his body to break free from the grip of the disease, a placebo effect of sorts. Park Chan-wook masterfully creates a tension around the concept of survival itself, which mostly lasts throughout the film; Sang-hyeon believes that he was just remaining optimistic in order to help him survive, while others believe that survival isn’t a matter of choice. Of course, things become complicated when Sang-hyeon discovers that he hasn’t completely defeated the illness but has instead been turned super-human by the blood transfusion he received when near death.

Sang-hyeon’s super-human abilities come at a price, though, with his newly discovered healing abilities, hyper senses and augmented strength and agility all requiring that he consume human blood. The first half of Thirst explores the conflict between Sang-hyeon’s devotion to helping people with his seemingly inhuman condition; the priest comes up with novel ways to sate his hunger without killing anyone and does his best to keep his condition hidden. But things fall apart when an awkward love interest pops up and the film begins a hellish descent into cliché and a slippery slope towards an orgy of sin. Sang-hyeon finds himself transforming from a priest with a slightly more devastating crisis of faith than most into a mopey jerk who seems unable to say no to the first woman he interacts with, childhood friend Tae-joo (Ok-vin Kim), herself locked into a crisis of marriage.

The sharp turn is almost laughable; Sang-hyeon had grown up as an orphan in the church and so it’s understandable that his experiences with women would be limited at best. Yet his relationship with Tae-joo is more than just a case of youthful naivety, Sang-hyeon more or less throws away everything he believes in for a girl he barely knows, first through quickies on the floor of her foster mother’s store and not long after, murder. The development isn’t entirely unbelievable, perhaps, but it lacks the novel approach the film utilizes until that point. What follows is without subtlety or poise, it’s simply a vampire story like any other vampire story, albeit with much more style than normal. The only connection it really has to the first half of the film is its continued exploration on what survival means and what its relationship to sin is, but on its own this motif is blunt and uninteresting. Where Sang-hyeon’s intense inner struggle had been so well presented before, it gets lost once he tumbles into sin at a dizzying pace. The flaw, then, isn’t that this tumble happened, but that it happens with seemingly little thought or at least not even the same amount of thought the priest put into considering volunteering at the lab in the first place. Yes, becoming a seemingly unholy monster would undoubtedly rock your faith; yes, it would probably make the God you so wholly believed in before seem to be even less likely to exist. But are morals tied only to religion? If you had become a priest because you wanted to help people, would the suddenly questionably existence of God be enough to make you drop your sense of right and wrong so easily just because of a love interest? There is some redemption with the ending of the film, but by that point, Sang-hyeon’s actions only seem like another whiplash inducing turnaround.

In a way, Thirst succeeds too well at first and ultimately does itself in as a result; had Park Chan-wook simply decided to craft a wonderfully stylish but nonetheless perfectly ordinary vampire story, Thirst would have been a wild, highly entertaining new vampire film. More importantly, had the director left out the bulk of the love story and chopped the minutes down, Thirst would have been a revelation beyond the level even of last year’s Let the Right One In. Instead, Thirst is half a remarkable, well-crafted redesign of the tired vampire story and half a thoroughly unremarkable but stylish continuation of that tired vampire story.

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