Cannes 2009: THIRST Review

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Cannes 2009: THIRST Review

Roughly one third of the way through the current incarnation of the Cannes Film Festival, Park Chan Wook's Thirst is already shaping up to be one of the most divisive films of the year with supporters and naysayers split fairly evenly and very few in between. And for good reason. On the plus side Thirst is indeed a truly original take on the vampire film from a true cinematic master blessed with a stellar cast. Moments of undeniably brilliance are sprinkled throughout. On the negative side, early reports of extreme violence and extreme sexuality were grossly exaggerated - though both are present in a significant degree - leading to false expectations of the film while, more importantly, it also proves to be an over-long film plagued by frequent tonal shifts, particular ineffective forays into comedy, and some surprisingly poor work from the wire and CG crews responsible for the super-power vampire leaps. unfortunately I must count myself on the negative side.

Thirst is a film that not only follows a three act structure but which varies each act so much from the others that it almost feels like three completely different films.

Act One: We meet Song Kang Ho playing a man of genuine faith, a priest who has dedicated his life to healing. He works in a hospital and is so frustrated by the deaths of his patients that he willingly signs himself up for highly controversial and dangerous medical experimentation trials meant to discover a vaccine for a deadly virus. Live trials are being conducted on fifty subjects - our priest among them - all of whom die in the process. Except, in the case of Song, he comes back to life. It is hailed a miracle and those hoping for healing quickly seek him out and though he doubts his own gift, genuine healing seems to pour out of him. But it soon becomes clear that his rebirth and new powers have come at a cost. His body is changing, his senses growing more acute, his muscles much stronger, but he has also become sensitive to light and noise and quickly realizes that the symptoms of the disease that killed him return if he is not supplied with a steady diet of blood. He has become a vampire.

Act Two: Now in full vampire mode our priest meets a troubled young woman, the wife of a childhood friend. She is unhappy, claims to be abused, and very, very attractive. He fights the urge but she is clearly more than interested and very willing and it is not long before nature takes its course and the two are meeting clandestinely. There is, of course, the matter of the husband, a matter easily cured by sending him to the bottom of the local reservoir. Guilt builds and threatens to destroy the pair, leading to the priest quitting his vocation and a violent confrontation between the two.

Act Three: The woman is turned. Ignored and taken for granted her entire life, she revels in her new powers - clearly enthralled by the fact that she is now the strong one. She is rash, impulsive and very violent. Our priest however, tries to follow a non-violent path - one that requires no killing - and it can't be long before the lovers are drawn into direct conflict with one another.

In basic terms, acts one and three function quite well when taken on their own terms. As self contained studies of different aspects of the story they are both very near to flawless. Act two, however, is a bit of a schizophrenic mess in serious need of trimming down. It also would have helped greatly if someone with true comic timing had been on set for these sequences because Park, honestly, just doesn't seem to have it. But even with the two significant pieces working well on their own, the film never truly comes together into a cohesive whole. It wanders and lacks focus with nothing in particular driving the narrative. There is no goal or endpoint, just this regular flitting about between loosely linked themes. And as a result while the film is - for the most part - technically superb and gorgeous to look at it just comes across as more than a little underwhelming.

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