What sort of film do you think would be made from the story of a Catholic priest who discovers he’s been turned into a vampire? Given that the director is Chan-wook Park, he who gave us Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. / Lady Vengeance, the answer is not “a horror film” or even “a blackly comic love story”, although you could use either label easily enough. Even calling this a vampire movie is a mistake, even if the main character does indeed drink blood to survive and has to stay out of the sun lest he roast.
Thirst is closest in spirit to stuff like some of David Cronenberg’s films (say, The Fly), where the gore and violence are paired up with cynical social commentary and insights into human nature. For about two-thirds of its running time, it’s brilliant. Then it begins to run long, to grow aimless and undisciplined, to substitute an audacious original idea with a bunch of progressively less-interesting replacements, and for the first time with a Chan-wook Park film I felt myself growing impatient.
Thirst gives us Sang-hyeon (Kang-Ho Song of Mr. Vengeance and the outstanding Memories of Murder), a Catholic priest working in a hospital somewhere in Korea, administering blessings and last rites to the patients. He’s a good guy: pragmatic, disciplined, gentle, thoroughly humane. He understands that the Church lives in the modern era, but he hasn’t used that as an excuse to break his vows. When missionaries of his order begin dying of a mysterious disease in Africa a la AIDS, he volunteers as an experimental subject. Sure enough, he dies too, but thanks to a transfusion of (vampiric?) blood, he doesn’t stay dead. Unfortunately, he now has to drink blood to keep from rather horribly dropping dead all over again; when he’s particularly hard up for red cells, he sucks from the IV of a former philanthropist (“He’d offer me his blood if he wasn’t in a coma!”)
Sang-hyeon ends up living with the family of a childhood friend when he’s asked to pray at the man’s bedside after he’s diagnosed with cancer. Then he sees the guy’s wife, Tae-ju (Ok-Win Kim) and feels at first sympathy for this sullen, wounded bird of a woman. Sympathy gives way to lust, and mounting inner conflict. But she’s not conflicted at all: to her, he represents a way out of her mother’s dress shop and a boring marriage to an insufferable prat. This leads to a riotous sex scene where she has trouble mounting him because he’s too busy flogging himself across his naked thighs with a ruler to dispel his ardor.
It's not just the blood-drinking alone, but the moral duplicity
that goes with being a vampire that's most troubling.
The movie has fun contrasting and comparing the way their respective thirsts work: him for blood, and her for power and freedom. When he finally does give in and tries to bed her down, he’s torn between making love to her and just guzzling from her neck. She thinks it’s foreplay, and why wouldn’t she? The idea that she’s unleashing such a carnal animal from this priest is probably half the turn-on, maybe for both of them. And the more she finds out how much she can manipulate him, the further he gets sucked in, until she becomes a monster of her own making and they both go off the deep end without realizing just how far down they have to fall to hit bottom.
Most films strike one tone and forget about anything else. Asian movies seem determined to play the whole scale. Thirst opens unassumingly enough: with Sang-hyeon, and his need to do good work. The middle stretch of the film is most like conventional horror-fantasy, with Sang-hyeon drinking out of blood bags and leaping across rooftops. But a latter third or so of the film is built from entirely different timber — it owes more than a little to Blood Simple or The Postman Always Rings Twice, where two people plot to kill someone who comes between them, are devoured by guilt, and soon turn on each other. And there’s a fourth phase after that, one even more perverse and jaw-dropping, which blends — or maybe forcibly cross-breeds — all three previous segments in ways both expected and un-, and which is better for its ambition than what it achieves.
The last stretch of the movie plays more like a family farce than a truly ambitious horror movie,
but maybe that's the film's own version of ambition.
Much of what makes the movie work is, likewise, in the first half of the film, when there’s more opportunities to contrast Sang-hyeon’s pious outward attitude and growing inward bloodlust. The words he utters — the Sacrament, the Last Rites — all take on perverse new meanings when they emerge from his mouth. Eventually the movie tilts more towards straight-up jabs in the ribs, as when Sang-hyeon commits a murder by straightening out a corkscrew, thrusting it into a victim’s heart, and sucking from the wound. Yup: He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood … But the last stretch is like a blood-soaked comedy of bad family manners, where the two of them have marital spats over who drinks from what dead body, corpses pile up in the closets and bathtub, and as much as I appreciated the film’s ambition and intelligence I kept thinking it could easily have been tightened by half an hour and lost nothing.
Park lavishes at least as much attention on the look of his films as Stanley Kubrick did. Oldboy (and both Vengeance films) had the iciest, most deliberate set design of any film in recent memory. Thirst is the same way: everything from the symmetrical beds in the research lab to the linoleum and wallpaper in Tae-ju’s apartment. The latter’s made even colder and more clinical when Sang-hyeon repaints it all white-on-white and hangs fluorescent lighting around the place to simulate daytime at night. He uses CGI and practical effects judiciously, as storytelling devices and not just because the screen needs to be filled up with something to hold our attention. And he has the nerve to take a story like this all the way out, even if it all eventually becomes a bit of an endurance test — not because it’s graphic, but because after a while you begin to long for more compact, succinct storytelling.