Park Chan-Wook's newest film is his exploration of the vampire mythology, a subject with a vast cinematic heritage. It has such a vast history that it can be difficult to re-imagine such a tale, but for the first hour of the film Park succeeds admirably. However, its second half is not nearly as impressive and the cliches begin to mount, not only in relation to other screen vampires but in its reliance on other genres as well.
The main problem with the narrative is the excessive amount of plot. The film moves fairly quickly and jams a great deal of action and story into its over two hour running time. But this had the effect of making the film seem extremely long and rather tedious. Too much of the action, especially in the second half, seemed rushed in order to simply give the audience the plot information it needed. As a result, all of the richness and texture that Park had created recedes and maximum stylistic overdrive comes to dominate.
The story begins with the main character, a priest, being infected with a virus that nearly kills him and turns him into a vampire. The man then has to try to live ethically with this "thirst", which is also a clear sexual metaphor, as is often the case in vampire stories. The fact that he is a priest only adds to this. He has a strong desire for the married daughter of a family whose son he has saved, and this relationship takes over the narrative. This is disappointing because for the first half, Park's characteristically striking images and his take on religion had a real beauty, and a subtle exploration of religion and human desire could have, and seemed like it would, develop. Unfortunately, the plot turns noir-ish, with a femme fatale leading the hero to murder (there's even a reference to Murnau's Sunrise). With this turn, the narrative lost its appeal for me, and Park's style likewise became unhinged and rather action-movie formulaic.
Park has frequently been torn between mainstream and art cinema approaches, and occasionally finds the perfect mix, as in Old Boy (2004). But with his last two films being rather unsuccessful commercially, Park has seemingly tried to make a film that could appeal to both tastes. The result is the opposite of the hybrid success of Old Boy: it is unlikely to appeal to either the lover of mainstream action films, such as his most popular film Joint Security Area (2000), or the fan of his more idiosyncratic efforts, such as the great Lady Vengeance (2005). This is not to say that the film is bad. It is still a good film overall and worth seeing, and for many other directors it would be a major accomplishment. But after seeing how good Park can be, and especially after seeing the first half of a near masterpiece, the result is unsatisfying.
On a more positive note, I saw Thirst back-to-back with Hong Sang-soo's new film, which was much better. I'm going to try to see it again this week and will write a full review then.