Chan-wook Park is fascinating because he seems driven by a tendency to reinvent and experiment with the styles of film he makes. Like I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay Chan-wook Park’s 2009 film (falling between Stoker and I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay), Thirst, adopts the conventions of a whole genre as opposed to styles belonging to a series of directors. Thirst is, on paper, Chan-wook Park’s first foray into the horror genre. Until now he’s merely been content with delving into the horrific. Stoker, which I’ve previously reviewed, dips back into the horror end of the genre spectrum, but not the same sort of horror. Thirst is basically a riff on true horror, the kind of movie you’d sit down to watch on Halloween. Stoker starts to slip into a Hitchcockian thriller/horror, which is an entirely different thing really. Thirst is a true-blue vampire movie, and stays pretty close to many typical horror tropes. Of course it does this in a brilliant and subversive way.
If you guys haven’t noticed from my everything, I’m rather prone to taking a plenary look at franchises and directors. It’s why I reviewed all the Planet of the Apes movies, am reviewing all the Gamera movies, and have just a sad number of other series set to give the same treatment. It’s also why this is the only Chan-wook Park movie I haven’t reviewed yet (excepting his portion of Three Extremes but I’ll get there). In the case of something like Gamera or The Planetary Body Inhabited by Simians, it’s because it’s really the best way to understand an influential and interesting franchise. Franchises’ later efforts are often this weird nebulous thing where they might have objectively good moments, but generally are more interesting when compared to the other entries, and these later entries will often retroactively change your understanding of the first entry. It’s not always necessary, truly Planet of the Apes is a great movie and everything after that is just this spectrum of good to middling quality, but knowing what Battle For the Planet of the Apes is like makes watching that latest movie more interesting, and watching Battle For the Planet of the Apes is ONLY interesting if you’ve seen everything preceding it. And now I feel I’m over-explaining a concept I introduced in order to point out that I’ve become incredibly fascinated with Chan-wook Park’s movies. The thing is his filmography is a lot like watching a great franchise. Park’s movies are very interesting when compared to one another.
Which is why I was excited to watch Thirst.
(Which is also why you’ll have to forgive me if I jump around and reference other Chan-wook Park films.)
Horror is a weird genre, because by nature it is exploitive and simplistic. When a genre is basically defined by its singular emotional goal it starts to sway towards the unartistic end of the entertainment spectrum. When that emotional goal is fear, a physical sensation more then a mental emotional state, it further skews the genre’s placement on the spectrum (basically porn is one end and high art is the other). Now there are great horror movies that are also scary, like The Exorcist, but there’s a reason why a lot of the best horror movies in the genre aren’t all that frightening, at least not viscerally, like The Shining. Obviously there’s a lot of artistry that goes into making a really frightening movie, and exceptions to every rule, it’s just that generally trying to craft a singular physiological response can conflict with attempts to create an actual artistic statement. Take Rosemary’s Baby, the most terrifying scene in that movie is also the scene most divorced from the movie’s actual themes. It may serve as a symbolic representation of something else, but really it’s just a bunch of scary shit and music. The Thing is a great example of the two goals intermingling; by making the very nature of the monster a commentary on the movie’s themes, anytime someone frighteningly turns into a monster it’s thematic, with little additional effort. In Halloween Michael Meyers is not thematically driven, and that movie is scarier. It’s also mainly satisfying for technical reasons and not artistic reasons.
Today is the day of tangents!
Thirst embraces these challenges head on. For one thing, ever a director interested in symbols and metaphors, Thirst uses vampirism as a metaphor for transition. Specifically sinful transition. It also never really tries to be a horror movie. While Chan-wook Park may co-opt the genre’s trappings and clichés, he’s rarely interested in actual horror. The movie is occasionally scary, and frequently gross, but horror is never the primary interest. Instead Chan-wook Park once again plays with detachment, something all his movies have used to some degree. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance uses detachment the same way a Coens’ movie does. Oldboy uses it the least but still uses it to help engage you in the revenge story, which is all just set-up for the brutal rug-pull of the climax. Lady Vengeance uses it so Park can assault the audiences with weirdness and symbolism. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay uses it to create a schizophrenic disconnect in the viewer. Finally Stoker uses it to help put you in the mindset of a murderer (although it takes a while to reveal that’s what it’s doing).
It all reminds me of a great Kubrick quote. When asked about the similarities between Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now he says that, musically speaking, he finds Apocalypse Now romantic where Full Metal Jacket is more classical, lacking sentimentality. “For me sentimentality means all the stuff you find in soap operas.” Chan-wook Park strikes me as having a similar approach, writing off exploitive emotions as the realm of lesser art. (Of course both directors can craft incredibly affecting scenes, that shouldn’t be forgotten, a lot of this comes out in the approach to the emotional components.)
The movie is about two characters that come from strict, limiting, stifling backgrounds drifting into the realms of freedom. Or at least what seems like freedom. Sang-Hyeon (played by Kang-Ho Song, the star of The Host and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) is a priest who travels to participate in a vaccine trial. Which means he needs to get the disease. Out of the 5000 participants, only he survives, accidentally reanimated by a vampire-blood transfusion. His new blood comes with an aversion to light, strength, and a need for blood. The blood keeps the symptoms of the initial disease from reappearing. He doesn’t get pointy teeth though, which is important. When he needs blood he either need transfusion gear or a violently bleeding corpse. The vampirism precipitates this once pious priest’s descent into the realm of physical pleasures. He keeps from killing people, sticking to non-lethally draining coma patients. He meets a girl named Tae-Ju (played by Ok-Bin Kim). Tae-Ju lives in a horrible household. Her adopted mother is abusive and strict. Tae-Ju is married to her son, a weakly and cruel man with no sexual desires to speak of.
The two meet and fall for each other. Sang-Hyeon breaks his vows, drawn to this new carnal world open before him. Tae-Ju starts to yearn for freedom even more than she already did, rebelling against her dictators – until Sang-Hyeon reveals his vampiric nature, which scares Tae-Ju. Suddenly Sang-Hyeon is transformed into an abusive partner, stalking and menacing Tae-Ju, who eventually concedes to continue seeing him. But Tae-Ju has her own horrifying aims. She blames self-inflicted injuries (cathartic wounds she makes on her legs as an alternative to killing her husband) on her husband. So in the most frightening scene in the film, a fishing trip ends with the unplanned murder of Tae-Ju’s husband. The three are night fishing when the blood lust takes hold of Sang-Hyeon. He grabs a knife and drags his target underwater. A fishhook snags Tae-Ju’s ear in the process, adding another level of tension. This bleeding ear then attracts Sang-Hyeon. This scene is almost immediately undercut when Sang-Hyeon pops out of the water and goofily reunites with Tae-Ju. Most scenes in this movie that skirt around actual horror are immediately followed by something not necessarily pleasant but humorous or surreal.
Eventually Sang-Hyeon loses control and kills Tae-Ju, reviving her as a vampire. Whereas Sang-Hyeon was content merely dabbling in physical pleasure and surviving off replenishable coma patients, Tae-Ju, tired of being abused, wants to do some abusing of her own. But now she has superpowers.
It’s no secret that vampire tropes creep right into superhero territory when the vampire becomes a protagonist. That’s why Blade works as a character. There’s the accidental or unexpected reception of powers, which naturally comes with a refusal and eventual acceptance. When vampires become heroes it also means there needs to be an opponent who’s cut from the same cloth, which naturally cuts really close to superhero territory. It’s evident in movies where vampires are heroes or movies where superpowers are treated like something frightening, like in Chronicle. Thirst really does occasionally feel like a comic-book adaptation to a comic that doesn’t exist. Whether it is a scene of the two vampires leaping and fighting rooftop to rooftop or a small beat where Sang-Hyeon unconsciously strikes a lamp post and bends it in half. Some of the iconography is really similar. Which naturally makes me wonder how awesome a Chan-wook Park superhero movie would be. Not that I ever need him to kow-tow to current cinematic trends, but damn would I sign up to see that movie.
Using vampires as a metaphor for a charcter’s descent into sin isn’t exactly new territory, but making Sang-Hyeon a priest makes it especially dramatic. Similarly Tae-Ju’s character affords a fascinating comparison. She’s been almost as isolated and self-sacrificing as Sang-Hyeon, but because she didn’t choose her life, she’s harbouring an incredible amount of resentment and anger for her predicament. Sang-Hyeon initially just enjoys a life free from the tyranny of the church, playing with his newfound freedom without actually hurting anyone. Tae-Ju’s role in his life means they both wind up co-dependent and fixated, driving each other towards worse and worse actions. Tae-Ju feels empowered by Sang-Hyeon’s strength and uses him as an instrument of revenge. Sang-Hyeon becomes obsessed with this girl who represents everything he never had and walks hand-in-hand down the dangerous and psychotic path with her. The vampire who wouldn’t drain the blood of anyone other than a coma patient starts to use his power as a form of doctor-assisted suicide, then starts killing those that anger him. This begins with Tae-Ju’s husband, who he falsely believes to be physically abusive. After this he feels compromised enough to kill an old mentor. By the movie’s last third, he’s a straight-up murderer and rapist. It’s a tragic fall from self-restraint to the ultimate form of raja.
The movie doesn’t ever feel like it’s advocating the priestly life however. I’m not sure it’s an accident that Sang-Hyeon still sports his robes for most of the movie. Chan-wook Park is too complex a symbolist to evoke this vision of a bloodsucking clergyman JUST because the robes look like a cape when Sang-Hyeon jumps around. If anything the movie seems like a cautionary tale about the dangers of power and unchecked bacchanalia. Like the rest of Chan-wook Park’s movies, the thematics are dense and hard to break down with confidence right off the bat. There’s a lot going on at any given time in his movies.
As a frequently symbol driven director, Park has recurring pieces of imagery and even recurring objects or scenes that always catch my eye in his films. It’s something you absolutely have to watch for, lest you miss an important element of these works of art. One of the film’s most interesting recurring symbols comes in the form of shoes. Early on we’re introduced to a strange habit Tae-Ju has. She routinely takes her shoes off, leaves the house at night in secret, then runs down the empty nocturnal streets in her barefeet, the pain of the pavement helps drive her. It’s all about her playing with the idea of escape. At almost no point in the film does she wear shoes when she can avoid them. She’s perpetually looking forward, unhappy with where she is now. Perpetually discontent and envious of other imagined lifestyles. (Not to say that she shouldn’t be, she’s faced with some pretty terrible living conditions early on, but she really does flat-out turn evil in the later part of the film.) The only time we see her choose to put on shoes is late in the movie. Late enough that the rest of this paragraph constitutes a major spoiler, and those who’d like to avoid it should skip on to the next block o’ text. The only time we see Tae-Ju put her shoes on is right at the end of the film. Sang-Hyeon has driven them out to a cliff and stranded them, forcing Tae-Ju to die alongside him as the sun rises. Tae-Ju struggles at first, brutally fighting and attempting to escape. When finally all chances of escape are lost, she gives up and sits on the hood of the car, watching the sunrise. Just before it does, she slips her shoes on her feet, accepting the here-and-now only as her life ends. Her body shrivels and burns, her legs turn to ash, and her shoes drop to the sandy ground.
While Thirst is more interested in emotional detachment than most horror movies, Chan-wook Park dives headlong into the gore and viscera the genre encourages. Chan-wook Park’s filmography is populated by films with occasional moments of brutal violence, normally handled with upsetting realism and a panache for clever filmmaking. As a horror movie Thirst is bathed in body horror and blood in a way that puts Park’s past films to shame. When too much time passes between blood-drinking bouts Sang-Hyeon’s skin begins to crawl with festering boils, a symptom of the disease the vampire blood saved him from. This is, naturally, gross. At first the movie actually keeps the bloodletting scenes strikingly tidy and modern. Sang-Hyeon lies next to coma patients, the end of their intravenous tubing sitting between his lips while he sucks at it like a baby. Later he uses the same system to fill a water bottle for later. At one point he brutally straightens out a corkscrew and stabs someone in the throat, draining him there. When Tae-Ju gets involved things start to go the way of American Psycho. The bodycount starts rising and the two start tearing at some prey with nothing but their teeth. There’s even a scene where a wary non-vampire wanders though their house in a panic unveiling hidden bodies in a variety of rooms. No Huey Lewis is played however, so the comparison ends there.
One of the film’s finest horror-movie-moments comes when the ghost of Tae-Ju’s husband starts haunting them. Concerned he will come after Sang-Hyeon, the murderous vampire not only drowns him and bleeds him dry but traps him in the closet of a submerged house, and places a rock upon the door of the closet. After the deed is done, Tae-Ju begins to imagine her bed is wet. She eventually starts seeing her husband lying on her bed smiling, a massive rock on his chest. Sang-Hyeon spends most nights in the film sleeping in an overturned closet, but on this occasion when we’re shown it, there’s a rock perched on top of the doors. Suddenly a torrent of water spills around the closet, seemingly coming from nowhere at all. Sang-Hyeon goes upstairs to confront Tae-Ju and the two share the hallucination. There’s a shot that really crosses the whole scene over from legitimatey spooky to comical and surreal. Tae-Ju and Sang-Hyeon start to have sex, and the guilt-driven spectre lies in his soaked fishing outfit between the nude, copulating couple while they try to pretend he’s not there.
The other thing that does set Thirst apart from most movies, let alone most horror-movies, is the incredible cinematography by longtime Park collaborator Chung-Hoon Chung. His aggressive and dramatic use of negative space is instantly recognizable and an ingrained part of the Chan-wook Park aesthetic. He’s always comfortable backgrounding the main action, or reducing the subject matter of a shot to a strange corner. In a dramatic confrontation involving Sang-Hyeon and a cast of Tae-Ju’s family friends he puts the camera unexpectedly far away from the people, all the way on the other side of the hall. There’s all this dead-space sitting in the foreground and the tense subject matter is, while clearly the focal point, relegated to an area that would be typically be thought of as background. He also continues to exercise great creativity when it comes to integrating real life architectural details in his shots. He’ll use weird gaps in walls and stairwells to surround a character’s face, or place a figure in line with the dramatic corner of a small ramshackle building, keeping the whole structure in frame as a way of emphasizing the character’s path. It’s great work that continues to help set Chan-wook Park films apart from almost anything else.
All in all, it’s every bit the interesting piece of experimentation one would expect from Chan-wook Park. The movie’s plot uses horror movie tropes, but plays them for symbolic or thematic means. It has some of Chan-wook Park’s characteristic recurring symbolism and grim violence. By using well-written characters and playing with genre tropes Chan-wook Park makes Thirst an unforgettable movie.