Thirst (2009): Korean Director Park Chan-wook’s New Film, Inspired by Zola’s Novel Therese Raquin

Cannes Film Fest 2009–The Korean director Park Chan-wook, a visual stylist who has made several terrific horror films, is becoming a regular presence at the Cannes Film Fest.  


This year he was represented with the vampire feature “Thirst,” a technically impressive genre item, which tries to add elements of social realism in its story of a disenchanted priest-miracle healer who accidentally becomes a vampire.

“Thirst” was released in its country in late April, two weeks before the Cannes Fest premiere, where it broke box-office records and became the year’s most commercial hit.


A co-production between C.J. Entertainment and Universal, in what may be the first Korean-Hollywood collaboration, “Thirst” will be released stateside by Focus Features July 31.  It remains to be seen how it will play in the U.S., after its mixed critical reaction at Cannes. 


Consensus among journalists held that the other Korean selection, “Mother” by Bong Joon-Ho, should have represented Korea in the competition, and that “Thirst” is a step down for the director of such cult pictures as “Oldboy,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.”


Park is known for his stylistic excesses, spectacles of eroticized violence, and ultra-dark humor.  But in “Thirst,” while taking these elements to a new, feverish level, he also blends them with conventions of a more realistic passion play, to mixed artistic results.

Song Kang-ho plays Sang Hyun, a provincial Catholic priest who volunteers to participate in a medical experiment in Africa aimed at finding cure for a deadly virus.  He survives but becomes a vampire through an accidental blood transfusion from a mysterious source, which makes him, as he says, thirst after sinful pleasures.

 Inspired by Zola’s Therese Rquin

Main chapters depict the attraction of the disillusioned priest to Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), his former classmate who’s now married to Kang-woo (new angle is that the husband is not old and sleazy).  Soon, Sang is being torn by a conflict between sexual repression and his background and libidinal instincts.  Inspired by Emile Zola’s 1867 novel, “Therese Raquin,” the film then develops a more familiar noir subplot of desire, murder, and betrayal, in which Tae-ju conspires with Sang Hyun to murder Kang-woo.


Needless to say, the two thematic strands, and the respective genres they represent, don’t gel, resulting in an incoherent work, marked by some bravura set-pieces, but failing to satisfy expectations (and pleasures) of a vampire horror flick. 


As audacious as it may sound, vampirism has been used before as allegory of troubled split personalities and of destructive relationships, in films by Abel Ferrara (“The Addiction”), Claire Denis, and Tony Scott (“The Hunger”).  However, in “Thirst,” the notion is underdeveloped, as if the helmer and his co-writer Jeong Seo-gyeong, had not fully thought out the implications of their tale.


As a result, the tone of “Thirst” film shifts form the farcical and macabre to more psychological realism without the black humor of the former and the depth of the latter. Production design and color scheme also reflect the schizoid nature of the scenario, shifting from hot and lurid colors of red to tamer ones of blue and white

The acting is uneven.  Relative newcomer Kim Ok-vin, a beautiful model turned actress, has too many hysterical scenes that express her neuroses and unbridled instincts.  However, the more famous and established actor Song Kang-ho (who had appeared in other Park pictures, as well as in “The Host”), gives a stronger performance that somehow manages to hold together this bizarre, twisted, fractured picture. 

Focus Features July 31