Monday, March 3, 2014

Thirst (2009) - South Korean Movie Review

I watch a lot of East Asian movies, particularly ones from Japan and South Korea. In fact, I've probably seen more East Asian movies in the past year than American movies in the past ten years. I'm not terribly picky with genres, either--comedy, romance, drama--but I especially love horror. There's a reason Americans attempt to remake a lot of Asian horror films, and it's because they're great (even though the American remakes are usually garbage). The directors over there just know how to keep the genre fresh and make things creepy without being unnecessarily gory. Plus, they've got a great culture and history to work with when needed.

So I figured I'd start reviewing some East Asian films on my blog, because heavens knows this place is practically a graveyard lately. First up is the 2009 South Korean horror film, Thirst.

I'd been putting off seeing this movie because I tend to gravitate (pun intended) towards ghost stories over vampires films, and because of all the anticipated eye rolls that modern vampire films usually conjure (but more on that in the next paragraph). However, I finally decided to see Thirst because I really like the main actress, Kim Ok-bin. She was great in Over My Dead Body and Voice and, while I didn't especially like Actresses, I enjoyed her part in it. I'd also seen the main actor, Song Kang-ho, in The Host and Howling. Neither are movies I particularly cared for, but it wasn't because of his acting. As an added bonus, Kim Hae-sook (who I loved in The Thieves, but who has a impressive amount of film/TV credits in general) is a supporting actress in the film.

On the outside, Thirst is a vampire movie but, after seeing it, I almost think it's an injustice to classify it as just that. When most people think about vampires these days, they immediately conjure up images of silly, sparkly, broody Abercrombie model-esque guys (which is when I generally start to eye roll). Thirst not only breaks that down, but completely demolishes all those preconceptions. In fact, the movie presents the whole vampire thing as being more like a disease, similar to what some zombie movies do, except with very different consequences.

A very brief synopsis (without spoilers): A Catholic priest, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), decides to participate in an extended experiment to find a vaccination for a deadly virus. Because of a mysterious blood transfusion, he's the only one who survives the testing. When he finally leaves the medical facility after several months, we see that news has gotten out about his miraculous recovery and everyone wants him to bless them or their sick relatives. This is how Sang-hyun meets Tae-Ju (Kim Ok-bin), a non-religious young woman bored with life who works in her adoptive mother's (Kim Hae-sook) shop, and a twisted love affair soon ensues. In the middle of all this, Sang-hyun develops vampire-like symptoms and abilities, and things get complicated pretty fast (although not really in the ways you'd expect).

I almost sort of hate mentioning there's romance in the movie, because it's about as far from a cliche Twilight-esque relationship as it can be. It's disturbing and psychological with elements of depression and self-harm, and each person brings his and her own dark problems to the table. Song Kang-ho's character undergoes a pretty intense transformation in the movie but, in my opinion, Tae-Ju's transformation is much more drastic and interesting. The movie isn't so much about what it means to be a vampire in general, but more so what it's like being a vampire for these main characters in particular, and how it intertwines with their everyday lives and beliefs. The film even toys with the ethical implications of becoming a vampire, with the differing opinions of the main characters leading to the story's end. (I'm trying really hard not to spoil anything here.)

One of my favorite scenes includes a brief vampire chase over some building rooftops, but I wouldn't qualify it as an action scene, despite how it sounds. It's quiet and refreshingly strange, which is how I'd describe the overall tone of the movie.

I will say that, at 134 minutes, there were several scenes I believe could've been shortened or done away with, including a lengthier hospital sex scene between Sang-hyun and Tae-Ju. I don't have any problems with sex scenes, but it seemed like that one could've been cut in half (at least) because it didn't lend to the main story. There were also a few scenes that left me a tad confused (especially some of the ones involving Tae-Ju's adoptive brother and another scene near the end), but not enough that it distracted me from what was going on. Actually, a quick read of the plot on Wikipedia afterwards revealed the meaning of a few of those scenes, even though I'd still argue that they could've been axed.

As a side note, there's some nudity in this film. This doesn't bother me, but I know some people like to be aware of that in advance. I'll never understand why we're all okay with watching people get mutilated in strange ways (which this movie doesn't have any of, by the way), but we get in a tizzy over seeing body parts we all have.

Overall, Thirst is one of the better South Korean horror films I've seen lately, although it seems more like a supernatural, psychological thriller than a horror film. The acting is great (especially Kim Ok-bin's) and the unique story and character transformations kept me thinking about the movie long after the credits rolled. The only shortcomings, in my opinion, are the length and couple special effects I think could've been done better (or else not done at all).

My rating: ★★★★½ out of 5