Adored by geeks for his stylish violence, lauded by the arthouse for his immaculate camera, and beloved by all for his “Vengeance Trilogy,” South Korea’s resident idiosyncratic auteurist Park Chan-Wook took a minor misstep in his oeuvre with the 2006 romantic comedy, “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK,” but with the grim sounding vampire film, “Thirst,” he seems poised to regain any lost footing. Having won the Grand Prix in 2004 with the sequel in the vengeance triptych, “Oldboy” – a film that then-jury head Quentin Tarantino adored – obviously he and his work are no stranger to Cannes and “Thirst” is apparently already a big hit in Korea. Some synopses give the entire film away, this one — a man of the cloth volunteers for an experiment that goes wrong and accidentally turns him into a vampire — just scrapes the surface.
Falling somewhere between the whimsical nature of ‘Cyborg,’ and the more brutal attributes of his previously lauded work, “Thirst,” is somewhat a disappointment and a not entirely successful melange of many of his various visions, tones and quirks. Suffering from a muddled narrative, an overextended, dragging last-half, and disparate tones, the film is also somewhat confused, never quite nailing down what its trying to say or achieve. As a religious screed, it isn’t invective, as a morality tale, it works only in moments and has little bite, and as a love story, it has its amusing moments as well as its hang ups. It’s also much more comedic than you’d expect, which is perhaps, at times, the one saving grace, that makes the film (somewhat) enjoyable, despite its flaws (though Playlist Cannes correspondent Sam Mac tells us he, “hated it,” and we can understand why).
Popular South Korean actor Song Kang-ho (“The Host,” “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance”) plays Sang-hyun, a priest who is respected for his compassion and altruistic dedication, but his faith is seemingly tested when a patient and friend lapses into a coma in front of his eyes. Tireless in his efforts to help the lesser, and seemingly galvanized by the grave incident that has befallen his friend, he travels to Africa, volunteering as a guinea pig for an experiment that could act as a potential cure for a deadly infectious disease. During the testing he is infected and dies, but the blood used to attempt to save his life appears to be tainted and he is raised from the dead, chanting a strange mantra (like a leper rotting in flesh, let all avoid me, like a cripple without limbs, let me not move freely, Remove my cheeks, that tears may not roll down them, etc. and so on).
News travels of this “miracle,” and the priest becomes a much sought-after religious savior, with a small cult of devotees. Desperate citizens beseech him to bring good fortune to their ailing family members, and while he tries to dismiss any rumored healing powers as simply a psychological panacea, though he eventually relents to visiting a few homes out of empathy. One such trio, the Ra family, has a sick son, Kang-Woo (Shin Ha-Kyun, the mute from ‘Mr. Sympathy’), who coincidentally was a childhood friend of the priest when he was an orphan. He repays the long-forgotten friend by “curing” his cancer which goes into remission (though seemingly through nothing of the priest’s own doing). He is instantly magnetized to the introverted and sullen daughter Tae-Joo (Kim Ok-Vin), who he also remembers from childhood and she too is drawn to him.
Adopted into their family, but still marrying her brother (though not by blood), Tae-Joo is treated like an indentured servant and hates her miserable existent, her overbearing vodka-sozzled mother/mother-in-law and her dimwitted goofball husband. Simultaneously, the priest, Sang-hyun, who has become a welcome family friend, is starting to feel the awakening hunger pangs of his nascent bloodlust, going as far to clandestinely drink the blood of his coma patient. Doing so keeps his infection at bay — which manifest in blistering lesion outbreaks when he hasn’t fed — but he is already passed his moral crossroads before he consider the consequences.
As the pastor abandons his moral compass — not without some conflict — he too succumbs for his lust, lust, lust of Tae-Joo. The two swap spit, fluids and eventually, blood types, making her too the owner of supernatural powers and the curse of immortality (the visual effects of which are not always dazzling to say the least).
While the priest attempts to temper his vampire desires with his still existing value of life, an ethically flawed idea of feeding on the lesser victims – unsuspecting patients, whose unconsciousness precludes them from being aware of any missing plasm, and suicide patients on the way out — rather than going for all out carnage, Tae-Joo becomes more nihilistic and rapacious, insisting her ineffectual husband (who couldn’t hurt a fly) is beating her and soon tricks the jealous and obsessed priest into plotting his murder. All the while their love grows more fractious, as she evinces contempt for Sang-hyu’s “compassionate” ways to stay alive — a slippery slope with dubious rationalizations, but he clings to some kind of humanity.
The film then takes a ridiculous and surrealist detour that moves the already-existing absurdist tenor past the point of simply amusing quirk (or half-hearted comic allegory) and into the off-the-charts credulity straining realm of no return (even for this fantastical story). The already strange rhythm and pace of the film, which feels idiosyncratically peculiar initially, becomes almost all but confused. The picture should wrap-up, but it persists with a Kubrick-ian section where the Ozzie & Harriet-like couple’s vampire love gets ugly as they bicker over who has had their fill of blood and their rules of non-murder quickly fly out the window (all shot within a very Stanley-looking cynically-white painted house).
The narrative essentially collapses under the weight of its ambitions and various strands, not to mention it changes focus from the priest to Tae-Joo which disconnects us further (and we’ve barely mentioned the overbearing mother and the priest’s blind father who he seeks absolution from). Ultimately, the films fails to reconcile or articulate its themes of love, lust, faith and temptation (and/or how they truly connect) beyond any tenuous levels, and it struggles to remain coherent in its last half (by the end its has flailed all over the map). It also spends entirely too long to reach its rather excellent climax of conscience and sacrifice that does have its moments of quintessential Chan-Wook awe-inspiration – but by then it all feels a little too late. [B-]
Postscript: Halfway writing this review, I realize that our Cannes wrap-ups are up and god, the headline pretty much says everything one needs to know about “Thirst” – it way overstays its welcome and probably should have been a tighter 95 minute film. There are about two scenes somewhere when you think its going to end, but it doesn’t really happen. It starts out pretty damn enjoyable and twistedly funny, but, by the end, its become a victim of its wild and overreaching aims.