2009, R, 134 min. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Starring Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-vin, Shin Ha-kyun, Kim Hae-sook.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 14, 2009
Have you heard the one about the priest, the girl, and the mother-in-law? Would you like to? It goes like this: A humble, selfless priest enters into a supremely dangerous scientific study with the aim of helping all of humanity. (Very Christ-like, this priest.) Instead, he ends up suffering from cravings for human blood and the girl's female flesh. In the end, the mother-in-law (as ever) wins, sort of. Now envelop that sick joke in a thick, brooding, smirking cloak of South Korean director Park's hyperstylized existential and extra-sensual set-pieces, and you've got Thirst, a gorgeous feast for the eyes, ears, and theological mindset but also a severely overlong meditation on the multiple forms of vampirism – natural and supernatural – that the human species inflicts upon itself. The thirst for love – lust, actually – and the emotional detachment necessary for a priest to attend to his crucificial duties and thereby avoid spiritual and physical impurity are at the juicy, beating heart of Park's film. He is best known for having helmed the terrific if uneven "vengeance" films Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance, as well as the nail-bitingly bizarre “Cut” segment of the Three Extremes anthology film. Thirst is alive with passion, to be sure. The priest, played by the excellent Song (The Host), and his reluctant paramour and eventual ally-cum-nemesis (Kim Ok-vin) are another strata of Park's continuing fascination with righteously deviant sexuality, but the film itself, shrouded as it is in equidistant subplots both hilarious and horrifying, is, at its core, unalive. It may be that Park, a filmmaker I've loved since I first stumbled onto Mr. Vengeance's glorious mayhem seven years ago, intends for his exsanguinated interlude to be a meditation of the sublime crossover between love and lust, between passion and Christ, between the sinner and the sheer, addictive joy of sinning. Taken as a whole, however, Thirst meanders too far from the crossroads of life and death; it gets outright dull in spots, although they are few and far between. Despite closing with one of the most memorable final shots of any vampire film, ever, you're left with a feeling not of dread, nor even of joyous release (and certainly Park does not stiff us on the manic, frantic sex scenes), but with the gnawing, clawing feeling that a funny thing happened on the way to the graveyard, and you missed the joke.