JULY 9, 2009
It’s rare I get to see any Asian horror films in theaters; I usually have to settle for a DVD or a cable viewing, months or even years after they’ve been fawned over (or remade). So I was elated to get a chance to see Chan-Wook Park’s newest film, Thirst (Korean: Bakjwi) , a full two weeks before it came out in theaters and certainly a long time before I’d get to see it on DVD. I hadn’t even watched a trailer - all I knew was that it was about vampires and had a very good chance of being quite good.
And it was, so that’s good. In fact, it just misses being “great” due to the fact that Park was seemingly afraid to tighten his film. It’s not that it’s simply “too long” - when the pacing was 100% right, I felt like I could watch the movie all day. But some scenes go on a bit longer than necessary, and what should be the midpoint event of the film (when a certain character is turned into a vampire) actually occurs around 2/3 of the way, perhaps even further along (I’m not good with the fractions). The climax, which is terrific with regards to character and story development, also goes on a bit too long, resulting in a somewhat diminished impact. Some movies suffer from extraneous scenes and the like, this one merely suffers a bit from letting great scenes wear out their welcome.
Some of those great scenes include a terrific sight gag early on, right after our hero (Kang-ho Song from The Host) becomes a vampire (for all intents and purposes). He is visiting his honorary family, and the mom tries to get him to eat some of her cooking, which causes him to gag. He explains that it wasn’t the food, but that he caught a whiff of blood. Suddenly, the young woman of the family looks embarrassed and quickly walks to the bathroom. Not only is this a funny gag, but it was also one of the moments that made me glad I was watching it in the theater, as I love when a subtle gag takes a bit longer to register with some of the folks in the audience (there were like 3 or 4 different reaction times for this particular one).
I also loved the overall concept. There have certainly been a number of horror films that revolve around priests that used to be cops (or vice versa), or priests that turn into ass-kickers, or whatever, but I think this is the first that turned the hero priest into the monster itself. Not only is he a good guy anyway, but as a priest he is doubly against things like murder, so watching him find ways to feed his addiction and also justify his behavior later in the film when the thirst becomes stronger was quite unique and entertaining. There is nothing like the hallway fight scene in Oldboy that will really grab your attention on a technical level, but the story itself more than makes up for it.
There are also a number of wonderful touches that turn standard vampire movie scenes into truly memorable ones. When he has to confess that he is a vampire to his girlfriend, and defend himself (“I didn’t ask for this!”) type stuff, Park purposely tracks back a bit and shifts the camera a bit to the left, in order to allow us to see Kang-ho Song’s reflection in the mirror as he gets to the “I’m still human!” part of his speech. Clearly, these are not vampires in the traditional sense - he has a thirst for blood, superhuman strength and can’t handle sunlight, but garlic, crosses, mirrors... those things do not apply here. For lack of a better term, it’s a “real” version of vampirism.
And in the wake of Twilight, I couldn’t help but occasionally compare the two, as this film is primarily a romance (albeit a twisted and unconventional one). Like Twilight, there is a scene where the man takes his human lover on a “ride” of sorts, using his superhuman strength to give her a thrill she would never be able to experience without him. In Twilight, he sort of tosses her on his back and flies around the woods. Here, Kang-ho Song holds her in his arms and begins making giant leaps from rooftop to rooftop. It’s an exhilarating sequence, and unlike Twilight’s, you can actually FEEL the excitement and thrill as it occurs. As I said in my review of that film, I felt that Catherine Hardwicke’s “indie” style direction hampered the film, and now I more or less have proof, as the scenes are thematically/dramatically identical and yet Park’s version is 10x as powerful.
One minor thing tickled/kind of bothered me - the subtitler’s insistence on using “Cuz” instead of “Because” or even “ ‘cause ” whenever it came up in the dialogue. The characters are intelligent, grown people - I am sure they aren’t using street slang. It just made these lines of dialogue feel kind of childish.
Pacing issues aside, it’s a terrific addition to Chan-Wook Park’s filmography, and I am glad that Focus is giving it a respectable (and well marketed) theatrical release. Hopefully it will catch on with jaded vampire movie fans who have long grown tired of guys with Euro-trash accents and plastic fangs stalking Romanian sets. Like Larry Fessenden’s Habit, it’s an “alt-vampire” tale that you almost wish was actually the norm.
What say you?