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Watching Hour Preview and Review: Thirst

Thirst, Park Chan-wook's Korean vampire epic, is playing at the Watching Hour this weekend. Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy deserves all the accolades it has received. Thirst doesn't hold a candle to the Vengeance Trilogy, but like Park's other efforts there's enough good here for ten movies. It has serious problems, but what's good is really, really good.

In Thirst, priest Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song) is so good and noble he sacrifices his body as a guinea pig for science, in hopes of finding a cure for a horrible, debilitating disease. He's such a martyr, in fact, he doesn't even tell anyone what he's up to, lying to everyone that he's taking a vacation at a fancy resort. I never trust characters who are that 'selfless,' and sure enough, when the antidote turns Sang-hyun into a vampire, it's only a matter of time before he leaves his piety behind and gives in completely to his basest instincts. If there is a road back to redemption, it will be a long and arduous one for our protagonist, and half the time, he doesn't know whether he wants redemption. And this is all in the first fifteen minutes! Like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, the first fifteen minutes of Thirst would have been the entire movie in any other director's hands. So much time passes and so much happens, there's an entire thematic arc there. But Park Chan-wook is just getting started...

The first act of the movie follows Sang-hyun's decent into vampirism, but also his reconnection with now-married childhood friends Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim). Theirs is in the running for most dysfunctional relationship even committed to film. Kang-woo and his overbearing mother treat Tae-ju like a servant. As Sang-hyun spends more time with them, his lust for Tae-ju becomes uncontrollable, and their bizarre courtship becomes an escape for both. For Sang-hyun, this is the final nail in the coffin (pun intended) of his priesthood and piety. For Tae-ju, this is an escape from a life of humiliation and servitude. She emerges hungry for revenge, and turns out to be not quite the innocent victim she presents herself as.

Their budding relationship and vampirism grow, twist, and mutate. There are moments in this chunk of movie that are classic Chan-wook, a sort of baroque, deadpan horror that’s as much funny as it is unnerving. The young lovers’ first flight is one of the stranger and more intriguing things I’ve seen at the movies recently. Their knock-down, drag-out argument whilst leaping and soaring over the rooftops of Seoul is breathlessly astounding.

All this makes me sound like I love Thirst. But I don’t. Here’s why. The second half of the movie derails into a sort of vampire Sid and Nancy. We’ve seen the ‘vampire as drug addict’ before, and we’ve seen ‘drug addicts holed up in an apartment for weeks on end’ before too. The combination just didn’t work for me. This section of the movie seemed frustratingly long, and betrayed the head of steam they had built up with the first half. I’m sure this was purposeful on Park’s part, but it just didn’t work for me. I like Thirst a lot, and there are parts of the movie I am passionate about, but this passage kills the momentum at a critical time in the movie’s progression.

I’m not going to even touch on the ending. It’s easily the best scene in the movie, and I would feel guilty for spoiling it if you haven’t seen Thirst yet. Needless to say, Park Chan-wook gets things back on track for a pitch perfect finale. The cinematography, acting, pacing, setting, all perfect.

One last thing about the ending. There is a shot that is maybe the second or third to last shot in the movie. It is so strange and so totally out of place that I seriously couldn’t believe my eyes. Remember in The Shining right before the blood-flood when Shelley Duvall looks down the hallway and sees what looks like a guy in a bear mask giving head to Thomas Jefferson? It’s kind of like that. The funny thing about that scene is that half the people I talk to don’t remember it. It’s like it’s such a non-sequitor and makes so little sense in the context of the plot that they’ve blocked it from their memory. Likewise, when talking about Thirst with my friend Ed, he had no recollection whatsoever of this bizarre shot…involving whales.

Maybe I’m hallucinating.

Magic Moment: This isn't going to make any sense out of context, but Thirst's magic moment involves two people having sex with the drowned ghost of a soaking wet, booger-nosed dead guy with a giant rock tied to his chest sandwiched between them. What's magic about it is that it makes complete sense in the context of the movie.

-Ben

The Watching Hour is a weekly film series at the Starz Film Center, highlighting new and old cult, genre, or otherwise bizarro movies. Quite simply, The Watching Hour is usually the best thing to do in Denver on a Friday or Saturday night. From Giallo to schlock, Blaxploitation to Aussiesploitation, zombies to martial arts to who-knows-what, and everywhere in between. This is good ol’ rock and roll cinema spectacle. Not to be missed. (See the schedule, buy tickets, get directions, etc. here.)

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Watching Hour Preview and Review: Thirst + watching hour