Editor’s note: I met John Eno years and years ago back when I was working at the record store. He and I formed an instant bond over science fiction and Buffy The Vampire Slayer but for a long time we kept our distance. However, we live in a small community with an even smaller counter-culture so it didn’t take long for us to orbit the same social circles. Before long, we would engage in the supremely nerdy art of die rolling and maneuvering around a board made to look like the various decks of The Galactica. A while back John engaged me about submitting some reviews to the site and while I vacillated on the topic, he went ahead and started up his own blog to write extremely scholarly reviews of movies that may or may not deserve that level of scrutiny. So here I am, presented with the opportunity to introduce John to you. His blog, Delimited Liminality is freakin’ sweet and this is a cross-post, bitches.
Thirst is a vampire movie without the trappings of vampire movies. No wooden stakes, no animate shadows, no black leather or period dress, no fangs, glowing eyes or other signs of physical transformation. The lack of the usual visual signifiers of vampire stories is deliberate, a sign that the film intends to use vampire mythology as a metaphor for something other than the factory-standard sexual hangups conceit that’s been the vampire’s stock in trade since Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a great idea to intertwine inquiries into the relationships between evil and freedom, moral certitude and powerlessness, and faith and happiness into the story of a medical experiment gone bizarrely wrong. The problem is that the movie buries these themes so deeply into its story structure that spotting them is nearly a chore.
Scene by scene, the movie is totally arresting. Park’s breathtakingly precise visual sense is on full display here, and the imagery is gorgeously lush and chilling by turns. The actors inhabit their characters completely, even when called upon to perform uncomfortable, sometimes ridiculous acts. Since the film generally sidesteps the normal tropes of vampire movies, we don’t know where any given scene might head off to, and quite a few of them do end up in very unexpected territory, lending a sense of off-kilter tension to the proceedings.
It’s in the larger scope of the plot that the holes begin to show. Individual scenes tend to be nearly isolated from each other, their narrative connection to one another so seemingly tenuous that it can be difficult to figure out why one follows the next. Since each scene also tends to feature little internal mysteries to solve – Park’s not going to be accused of hand-holding any time soon – it’s easy to lose track of why we’re being shown a particular scene in the course of trying to figure out what’s going on within that scene. The result of this narrative style is that the film approaches its themes so elliptically that it almost manages to elude them completely.
This method is a great way to ensure repeat viewings by an audience hungry to figure out what it was that they just watched, and in the hands of a master like Park, we can be confident that by the end of the film, all of the little hints and clues that have been offered will come together into a cohesive whole. But though the title is a good clue that the focus of the story will be on anticipation rather than gratification, the movie still feels like something of a bait-and-switch during its long middle stretch.
For a film billed as being about a priest who’s turned into a monster, not much time is spent tracking his way through a degenerative (and, as the plot progresses, potentially redemptive) arc, or the moral or religious quandaries that the core idea seems tailor-made to examine. There are scenes which touch on his transformation, but they tend to be short, enigmatic bookend scenes of the kind I described earlier. Instead, the bulk of the film concentrates on the developing romantic relationship between the two leads. That’s a bit unfortunate, as their entanglements are probably the least interesting angle that the movie could have explored. There are any number of other, less nutty setups that could be employed to watch how a couple manipulates each other for their own needs, often unconsciously, so it seems a bit wasteful to squander the rich innovative potential that Thirst possesses on such well-trod ground.
The bits which actually center on the protagonist’s vampirism are fun and inventive, distributed sparsely enough through more mundane stories about family and social obligation that they are always a surprise when they suddenly appear. They don’t adhere much to the classics of vampire mythology, which suits the very non-traditional origin of how he ends up becoming a vampire in the first place. Keeping the audience in the dark on this score opens up the movie to explore the idea of evil in a much more abstract context than if there’d been some kind of deliberate conversion undertaken by a concrete entity, and it also means that there’s no one around to explain to us what exactly a vampire can and can’t do. That makes for quite a few fun curveballs that wouldn’t have been possible if the vampires had hewn closer to their historic mold.
Thirst is a little overlong, and though it’s pacing is almost brutally rapid between scenes and quite a lot happens offscreen, individual scenes often tend toward languor rather than terseness. I’ve seen it tagged as a horror film in many places, but it doesn’t make any effort to create scares, either in terms of cheap jumps built to exploit its audience’s autonomic nervous system or those intended to haunt the mind even after the film has ended. But taken on its own merits, it’s well worth watching even if it scores as only a minor success in the wake of Park’s other oeuvre.