Thirst (2009)

Thirst review first published by Film4

Synopsis: Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) directs, produces and co-writes this melodramatic horror oddity.

Review: The heart of Thirst may be a vampire film but its soul is a morality play, while its flesh is a sensuous playground of desire. Like his previous film I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), Park Chan-Wook’s film ends with two lovers bathed in the light of the dawning sun – but there all similarities to anything that he has done before end, apart from the writer-director’s trademark deftness with bright colours and striking images, and some familiar faces in the cast.

Thirst is not a tense cross-border thriller like JSA Joint Security Area (2000), nor does it follow the retaliatory trajectory of the so-called ‘revenge trilogy’ Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005). Rather, Thirst is ostensibly Park’s first foray into feature-length horror (following his short Cut that formed part of the 2004 anthology Three Extremes) – except that, even as a vampire film, Thirst is far from conventional.

From the moment we first meet Catholic priest Sang-Hyun (Song Kang-Ho) – administering to the sick and dying in a hospital, trying to offer advice and solace as he takes confession, and even selflessly volunteering for an experimental medical programme – it is clear that he is a good man. His self-denying prayers for suffering are answered in Africa where he becomes hideously infected, suffers a severe haemorrhage, and is pronounced deceased on a surgical table during an emergency transfusion. But this Jesus-like figure will indeed come back from the dead only to start living the life of sin and sensuality that he had long resisted and repressed.

“When you’re dead, you’re dead,” Sang-Hyun tells his blind, elderly mentor (Park In-Hwan) back at the seminary, but in fact the miraculously resurrected priest seems to be undead. He catches sight (and, more importantly, scent) of Tae-Ju (Kim Ok-Vin), who was once the object of his boyhood affections and is now unhappily married to ‘idiot’ Kang-Woo (Shin Ha-Kyun). Sang-Hyun’s burgeoning appetites lead him to slip inexorably into exploitation, adultery, murder and worse, as he all the while struggles to justify his actions and to steer himself back towards redemptive martyrdom.

With his enhanced strength and senses, his acute aversion to sunlight, and his insatiable lust for blood, there is little doubting Sang-Hyun’s status as a creature of the night. However, Park prefers to play out this horror tale as mordant morality melodrama. Its domesticated adultery-and-mahjong scenario is one fifth In The Mood For Love (2000), one fifth The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), and three fifths Émile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin (filmed by Marcel Carné in 1953, and openly acknowledged as a source by Park) – none of which featured priests and vampires at all. And there is always the question of whether Sang-Hyun’s undead adventures are meant to be taken at face value or are, as one character puts it, ‘all psychological’. For the latter, think something like The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988) as reimagined by a priest dying in an African intensive care unit as he confronts his own innate sinfulness before finally going the way of all flesh. Either way, Sang-Hyun ends up more or less back at the point where his vampiric escapade first began.

Before he gets there, though, we are treated to Eros and Thanatos in their most fetishistic forms. Feet are worshipped, toes and underarms are licked, shoulders are nibbled, sex is had on loud-sloshing waterbeds and bodies are bled and devoured. It is a parade of rampant, seductive carnality, into which Sang-Hyun, and we with him, readily fall.

In a Nutshell: a heady vision of humanity’s darker desires, Thirst is sometimes grotesque, sometimes shocking and often very funny.  Its only flaw is its ungainly duration: like someone who has (however temporarily) cheated death, Park’s film lasts somewhat longer than it naturally should.

© Anton Bitel