Blu-ray Review: Thirst | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, May 30th, 2020  


Studio: Kino Lorber

Jul 26, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Park Chan-wook is easily one of the most recognizable international names in Korean filmmaking, cemented by his iconic and brutal Vengeance film trilogy, and his hauntingly disturbing 2013 English-language film Stoker. But sandwiched between these mighty entries into the psychological thriller subgenre is a little vampire film called Thirst (original title: Bakjwi). Released in 2009, and one of the first movies that Chan-wook served as producer, the film centers around a Catholic priest mutating into a nighttime bloodsucker through a failed medical experiment. A zany rollercoaster full of black comedy and moments of gorey goodness, Thirst is not a conventional vampire story in any right, nor is it a typical horror - it is a writhing mass of contrasting ideas that often work together, though it does occasionally fall flat on its face.

Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a Catholic priest secretly battling doubt and depression, who ministers at a local hospital. After volunteering to test a vaccine, Sang-hyun is nearly killed by the disease, but somehow makes a complete and recovery after receiving a blood transfusion. His recovery quickly evolves into a miracle for Sang-hyun’s congregation, and soon thousands seek him out to be healed. In the heat of this attention, Sang-hyun is reacquainted with Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), a childhood friend. As Sang-hyun becomes attracted to Kang-woo’s wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), his mysterious recovery turns south when returning symptoms of his disease seem to only disappear when he ingests human blood. His desperation to refrain from murder and contain his ravonous thirst becomes all the more complicated as his infatuation with Tae-ju deepens to extremely unhealthy levels.

Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, Thirst was awarded that year’s Jury Prize and was nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or. The film received substantial critical praise and debuted at the top of the South Korean box office, later being declared one of the best-selling films of that year. It would be released in the United States by Universal Studios Home Entertainment later that same year, and though the director’s cut was released in Korea on DVD and Blu-ray, it has yet to be outfitted for an international release. The most recent addition to the home releases for Thirst has come from Kino Lorber, who has put the original 2009 theatrical cut on a Blu-ray, and have included a new audio commentary track by entertainment journalist Bryan Reesman - that’s it.

This is by far the wackiest film I have ever seen from Park Chan-wook, and that’s saying a considerable amount. Scenes switch from sickly sinister to hilariously bizarre in an instant, and there is never a boring moment. However, that also turns against it when the film nears its conclusion, with the final act of the story grinding down to a meandering crawl in which it attempts to suck as much mileage in its fatalist comedy as it can, mitigating the impact of the final scene. While the principal cast are absolutely phenomenal carrying out their roles, especially Ha-kyun and Kim Hae-sook, their performances muddle slightly through the film’s inconsistent pacing, and Chan-wook’s exploratory direction.

This is not a horror film; nor is it a romance, comedy, fantasy, or anything in between. Thirst is a film that honestly defies modern genrelization, which is its best strength - the film pivots in ways that keep the audience engaged and guessing, though this narrative and stylistic zigzagging does not always pay off as satisfyingly as it could. The toxic love story here is etched with metaphor and emotional resonance, though it is undone somewhat by the wonky special effects scenes where vampire power is supposed to be on full display, and the visuals don’t quite meet the mark, even for 2009. While it may not match the hype train that has surrounded it since its debut, Thirst still is a wholly unique take on a worn myth, and manages to make some elements really fresh and new, even when watching it a decade later.

Certainly having parts bigger than its sum, Thirst still manages to be a weird and wonderfully sinister take on vampires, and the many forms of physical and mental disease and abuse. While a mostly solid film, it remains at the lower end of Chan-wook’s ouvre - however, considering the quality and impact of the bulk of his filmography, that is still an impressively high standard. Though the Kino Lorber Blu-ray is a crisp digital transfer, possesses a sleek cover design, and Reesman’s commentary is entertaining and enlightening at points, there isn’t enough supplemental material (which also includes a theatrical trailer) to warrant the sizable price tag over the original 2009 DVD.



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