Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy generated such enthusiasm from the global cinema community that excitement began to build about where the director's vision might go next, considering what'll happen if he were to take on other genres outside of gritty revenge thrillers. While his lighter science-fiction outing I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay was quietly released a year later to relatively mixed reviews, it was the news that he would be tackling a vampire story that really got gears spinning over what his dark, morally challenging perspective might look like in a genre film. True to Park Chan-wook's style, Thirst goes a step beyond what's expected of standard fare from vampire filmmaking, taking the idea of blood-drinking, murderous undead humans to even bleaker places by pulling in religious undertones and family/sexual abuse elements in the vein of the director's other work. And it's certainly engrossing, though it's also clear that the director's modifying old concepts instead of digging into his own ideas.
A respected Catholic priest (Song Kang-ho) in South Korea who focuses on ministering to the sick elects to participate in medical trails, designed to fight against a recurring disease. Amid the experiments, the priest develops the tell-tale signs of the disease -- notably horrific boils across his body -- and ultimately passes away. Yet, shortly after receiving a blood transfusion, he becomes resurrected and seemingly free of the disease, leading those in his surroundings to revere his miraculous state. The priest soon discovers, however, that in order to keep the underlying condition at bay, he must drink blood … while, of course, obeying many other limitations imposed on the vampire state of being. While relishing his newfound strengths and abilities and contemplating the ramifications of this somewhat unholy condition, his life intersects with that of a married, sullen childhood friend (Kim Ok-bin) and her abusive family, leading them to develop a relationship and for the priest to consider divulging the information to her.
The first half of Thirst ends up being its most cerebral and soul-searching, turning into a restrained examination of how a person of faith handles the transformation of becoming immortal and a being that, essentially, consumes the flesh of his flock. As expected from the veteran Korean actor, Song Kang-ho delivers a performance that's subtle yet tense at the same time as his character absorbs the archetypal vampire changes, leading him down a path of skeptical contemplation as he continues to aid the sick and develop a new reputation among his followers. The ethical back-and-forth that he endures taps into the bread-‘n-butter of Park Chan-wook's elaborate moral ambiguity and harshness, where shades of his first and third entries in the Vengeance Trilogy -- Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance -- emerge in how the priest resolves his need for blood and how he converses with the devout, both the believers and his superiors. The pacing may be slower and less violent, but an enthralling thought-exercise takes shape around the priest that's far more intriguing than that, the film's distinctive trait.
At a certain point, however, the moving parts of Thirst can't avoid defaulting to those of other vampire dramas, involving the priest's mindset as he ponders having normal relationships with humans and turning someone close to him into the same kind of "monster". His kinship with the gloomy, harassed wife and friend from his youth settles into what you'd expect of the storytelling here, where her discovery of his superhuman powers yield interesting, amusing, yet familiar moments of her testing his capabilities and becoming enraptured with his other-worldly presence. Candidly and intimately captured by Oldboy cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, these supernatural dramatic scenes land on a tough imbalance between being recognizable and slightly tweaked as viewed through the lens of Park Chan-wook, which isn't helped by the deliberate stall in pace at this middle point. The story wants those watching to live with a vampire priest and his suppressed mistress for a while, and as the girl's dark awakening is made compelling by entrancing actress Kim Ok-bin, the progression stalls and loses its bite.
It's also here that Park Chan-wook hits a snag with his newness to the realm the supernatural, where his desire for something meaningful around the vampiric "thirst" aspect becomes overexerted and nonsensical. He begins to explore guilt over the murder of someone specific by manifesting almost tangible visions of the victim within the priest's surroundings, and the uncontrollable and ever-present nature of them goes beyond elements of responsibility and into the realm of supernatural psychological invasion. Whether there's an element of the mystical at-work here or it's just the aggressive nature of regret, the imagery concocted by Park Chan-wook makes it seem inexplicably more real, interactive, and intrusive than what'd make sense, which becomes frustrating when it has a significant impact on the story's flight pattern to the final act. Park Chan-wook deserves to be applauded for taking risks and going in somewhat novel directions, but the way he goes about doing so -- and how it twists the mentality of those affected by it -- leads him astray in pursuit of morbidity and shock value.
Whether the final act of Thirst forgives it for prior sins might depend on what one wants out of the experience, but the events that follow once a newly-created, voracious vampire ravages the priest's community transforms into arguably the most effective merger of traditional vampire drama plotting -- in the vein of Interview With the Vampire -- and Park Chan-wook's unsettling, visceral cinematic style. The tried-and-true horror violence waits until this point to come out of the shadows, and while there isn't a scene here in the vein of the hallway hammer longshot from Oldboy, the brutality of the vampire killings and thirst-quenching tap into their own impressive, strangely human vigor. That's because the seasoned director never loses sight of anything, at all, being integral to the character-based storytelling, as nothing that happens and no one that dies in Thirst is without a thought-out purpose. Even as the sun comes up in Thirst and brings an end to Park Chan-wook's journey into the horror genre by echoing climactic tropes of vampire movies from the past, he sinks his teeth into just enough dark humor, inventive logistics and meaningfulness to savor it.
Video and Audio:
Thirst was one of those movies that went missing in action on Blu-ray for a very, very long time, released by Universal only as a DVD here domestically while the Korean market received a beautiful deluxe HD presentation … and even the UK had a disc pressed by Tartan to enjoy. The decision was unusual, especially since Park Chan-wook was at the height of his popularity at the time, and remained unusual for over a decade even as the director's work with The Handmaiden sparked new interest in his work. Finally, nearly a decade after its release, Kino Lorber are releasing Thirst on Blu-ray through a 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer, and while it still captures the handsome bleakness of the film's cinematography, it's not without issues. Echoing the color scheme of the DVD, the transfer reputable skin tones, admirable contrast levels, and stable doses of strong color and vivid lighting are weighed down by observable edge halos and middling digital stability around complex curves and dense details. Yeah, it's flawed, but not to such a degree that patiently waiting cinephiles should avoid this Blu-ray.
Thirst's soundtrack isn't a showy affair, gravitating toward Park Chan-wook's penchant for strong music selections, subtle atmospheric aspects, and shrewd verbal clarity, and the Korean 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track elevates all the ways in which those elements synergize into the director's signature style. Dialogue encompasses a fine breadth of lower-registry tones that fit well within the midrange bass response, while also aptly tapping into the higher-end registry with crisp enunciation. There aren't w huge amount of actual sound effects, but the few that do emerge -- the assertive splashing of water, the crackling of bones, the slamming and tossing of metal and the crunching of glass -- are pointed and responsive to the front-end channels, maintaining a fine presence at the center yet generously trailing to the sides for immersion. The most impressive aspect, however, would be the consistent delivery of music throughout the film, which fills the surround stage with fine, sweeping activity that doesn't drown out any of the effects. The English subtitles aren't too shabby, though there are a handful of grammatic hiccups here and there. Overall, a strong listening experience.
Aside from a batch of Trailers, one of which is for Thirst, the only extra comes in a newly-recorded Audio Commentary By Entertainment Journalist and Author Bryan Reesman … and it's pretty awesome. The balance between being scholarly and fun to listen to is really, really tough to hit in these things, but Mr. Reesman has done an exquisite job in his rhythm here, seeming as if he knows what cultural or cinematic elements those watching might actually really want to know about. An early example: he begins discussing the nature of Christianity among Koreans, then quickly and meaningfully shifts gears into Park Chan-wook's ability to let the audience do their own thinking in how they figure out where the Catholic priest has traveled. He chats about the previous projects of both the director and lead actor Song Kang-ho (mentioning Bong Joon-ho a bit), and while he certainly seems prepared, he maintains a great conversational rhythm that doesn't in the slightest, seem overly calculated. Great work.
Thirst is a striking, pensive, almost-great vampire film from Park Chan-wook, only missing that mark because it goes overboard with certain psychological aspects and sticks a little too close to standard vamp lore and archetypes for its own good. Outstanding performances, perfectly telegraphed horror violence within its methodical pacing, and a willingness to explore religion and morality in different ways give it an undeniably substantive attitude, one signature to the director. With a tighter grasp on how the characters perceive guilt and with a little less familiarity, Thirst would've risen to the same level as his other works. Like this, it's still a mesmerizing and unique take on vampirism under intriguing circumstances. Finally, Kino has brought Thirst to Blu-ray, and while the transfer has some rough spots, it still looks and sounds quite solid and comes with an exemplary commentary. Very strongly Recommended.