Thirst (or Bakjwi in its native tongue) is the new emotional epic by Korean director Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), a man well known for his devotion to character, but is this new foray into the horror genre a gamble which pays off for Park, or will he find that he’s better off letting his own well crafted characters decide the films genre.
A Korean priest (Sang-hyun) with an interest in medicine decides to try an experimental drug. As it happens, he barely survives the trial, but is the only patient who does. Sang-hyun then develops weird cravings and starts to realise he has new, supernatural abilities too. And all the while he is still doing his regular priestly duties, coming into contact with the family of a childhood friend of his, specifically their orphan wife, Tae-ju. Tae-ju is unhappy and slowly turns to Sang-hyun for guidance, without realising his deep and dark internal conflicts.
The story is a long one, and one of many turns but not so many twists. The length allows for a lot of depth and attention being paid to both the themes in the movie as well as focus on each of the characters for just the right amount. Not imply boredom, but the length is the main drawback of the film. There is no way it should have been any shorter, no time wasted on unnecessary set-up of the story (though a slow introduction), but viewers should know what they’re getting themselves into.
Throughout the duration, Park easily edits and shifts the camera from spotlighting the embarrassment a priest feels when he has unusual desires, the awkward comedy of the goofy family friend and the fierce drama between Tae-ju and the mother-in-law. On occasion this can get too much for the audience, the embarrassment, the lust and the death are to extreme levels, but all part of Park’s point to be sure. The small times of graphic blood are augmented by the low, pale light of the Korean city setting, but fired up by visceral sound effects and short, strong musical scores (when it counts).
The degrees of shock, the foreshadowing and throwbacks throughout (both visual and in dialogue) all seem diminutive next to the amazing performances by the male and female lead. Song Kang-ho plays Sang-hyun with so much integrity. He slows and fights of the impending transformation of the confused priest for as long as he can, but once turned, relishes the new interactions his character gets to pursue. Song is matched by the charming Kim Ok-vin playing Tae-ju. She also gets to enjoy her own transformation and part of the fun the audience gets to have is to watch how she, the character and the actor, differs with the route Song took. All the while the actors are politely let loose by Park’s wide control. Each of the character actors (Kim Hae-sook, Shin Ha-kyun, Oh Dal-soo) making up Tae-ju’s family and Park In-hwan as Sang-hyun’s head priest are all flawless to boot. Equal parts understated and silly, but there were surely missteps that a viewer may miss when considering the acting is Korean with English subtitles for our benefit.
Clearly Park is having fun with the topics in Thirst, and that translates (excuse the pun) across well to the audience and the B-movie feel with a modern eye for detail is a unique effect.