Why Park Chan-Wook’s ‘Thirst’ Isn’t Worth the Hype

By  · Published on September 3rd, 2009

Vampire films have been around as long as film itself. Dracula earned his wings as one of the original Universal Monsters back when the role was helmed by the incomparable Bela Lugosi. I thought about this a lot today because I think Universal Monster is a very apt term for a vampire; in a way that transcends studio labels. Vampires stories have origins in scores of ancient cultures from all over the world. Vampire cinema exists on almost every continent and, for better or worse, each entry boasts a unique set of cultural flavors. Chan Wook-Park is a fantastic director and all I heard for weeks was how his vampire opus Thirst was a gorgeous, deeply affecting film; my interest was duly peaked. Two very long hours later, I emerged in the minority. I did not like this film.

Thirst is a beautiful film……..for the first half hour. It explores the deeper, contemplative nature of faith, love, and desire. It uses vampirism as a metaphor for longing; the thirst for blood representing a universal desire for all the base experiences that define us as human. Not only that, I think it’s at once an enthralling love story and a caution of love’s potentially debilitating power to compromise you. Chan-wook Park is a brilliant filmmaker who always manages to find the heart in any piece. He discovers the most elegant way to break down a commonplace cinematic device like vampires or revenge into a character-driven allegory.

But my problem with the film is that it spends so much time layering metaphor upon metaphor that it becomes overly cerebral and begins to falter as a coherent story. So much time is devoted to digging deeper and deeper into the facets of human existence and the philosophical question of faith and religion that when the conflicting character arcs begin to overlap, the issues actually become muddled and confounded. The movie tries to satisfy too many moral compasses and juggles too many parables to the point that it can’t decide where its true meaning lies. It chases its own tail trying to reconcile all conceivable perspectives forcing the plot to meander and culminating in the reason that the film feels way too long. It’s not pretentious, it’s just faulty storytelling.

I love Park Chan-wook. I am a big fan of his methodically-paced, slow burn style. When the curtains are finally pulled back in Oldboy, you are decimated but it completely justifies the long narrative journey you’ve undertaken. The same can be said of Lady Vengeance. Her plan was 13 years in the making and we get to watch as each piece slowly falls into place vignette by vignette, but again the ending feels like the perfect conclusion to a long, eloquent character arc. The problem with Thirst is that the symbolism and the metaphors don’t support the conclusion of an arc but rather muddle it and hurt the overall composition of the story.

Going back to Park Chan-wook’s slow burn style, there is a point about 2/3 of the way through the film that feels like the big payoff moment. But instead of ending, the film redirects its energy toward that which it has already established. I’ll once again be vague here so as to not spoil anything. Park Chan-wook does a fantastic job establishing these characters to the point that we can deduce just how the events beyond that payoff point are going to unfold. But we are still forced to watch those inevitable outcomes repetitively unfold. Even if you are of the opinion that the film should not end at this point, a valid argument with which I disagree, there are plot points beyond that moment that are repeated so often as to seem perpetually looped. It transforms the nuance we’ve seen in his other films into explicitness and I feel the film suffers tonally for that change.

The actual ending of the film is the perfect example of this redundancy. Suffice it to say one character in the film has resigned to something of which the other character on screen wants no part. Let’s…..Be……Vague! It is one of those wonderful, cathartic moments of dark humor one usually finds peppered throughout a Park Chan-wook film. But again, the moment is replayed and replayed until it smacks of bad slapstick. Park gets his point across early but revisits it in such a way as to make sure we’re all in on the obvious joke. It’s like someone explaining to you why their joke is funny when you got it the first time, it’s condescending and makes the joke far less funny.

I have heard many times that this film is operatic. It stems from something a critic said and I have since heard several people apply a musical simile of some gender to it. To wit, let me throw my hat into the figurative ring and offer that this film is like a singer with one of the most beautiful voices you’ve ever heard. The lyrics she sings are moving and powerful, but each verse features lyrics from a different song. She can’t decide which song she wants to sing and my heart broke because of the utter disharmony of these captivating, separate words.

All that being said, I realize I’m in the minority on this. I think Park Chan-wook is a brilliant filmmaker, and I have really loved his other films, but Thirst didn’t cut it for me.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.