On a mission to cure a terrible virus, Priest Sang-hyeon is infected with vampirism - along with a roiling mass of carnal urges and guilt. If you like darkly funny, weird tales, don't miss Thirst from Park Chan-wook ("Oldboy").
Thirst opens today in the United States, and is the long-awaited new film from Park, whose cult hit Oldboy is a disturbing, ultraviolent mindfuck. Like Oldboy, Thirst is about characters who yearn for release from their prisons, only to discover that freedom is another kind of cage. And using an unsettling combination of slapstick, horror, and pathos, Park pleasingly turns the vampire mythos on its head.
San-hyeon (played by Song Kang-ho from "The Host") is a priest in an alternate-reality South Korea where a black plague-like virus causes people to barf blood, grow pustules, and quickly die. To help the patients he tends, the priest volunteers to leave Korea and participate in an experiment where he'll be infected with the virus and doctors can try experimental cures on him. Miraculously, after several gory scenes of infection, San-hyeon makes a full recovery under the foreign doctors' care. He returns home, where he becomes a kind of saint - everybody wants him to cure them, or to bless them. But he gradually realizes that his recovery was not due to medical science. He's become a vampire, and he needs to drink blood to prevent the infection from returning and killing him.
At this point, Thirst truly enters the dreamy, disturbing world of psychological horror. Park manages to sidestep a lot of the cliches of this subgenre by injecting seemingly inappropriate bits of humor - we see San-hyeon trying to drink blood "morally" by sipping from the IV lines of comatose patients. There's a mischievous satire of Catholicism here, too, with San-hyeon's very existence seeming to embody church hypocrisy.
When the priest decides to join some parishioners for mah-jong, he meets Tae-ju, the beautiful and frustrated wife of his dim-witted childhood friend. An orphan, she was taken in by his friend's family, treated like dirt, and essentially forced to marry a man who needs his nose wiped for him. With his vampy desires turned up to mega-levels, San-hyeon can't resist Tae-ju, and they fall into a heated but bizarre sexual affair. I honestly couldn't decide if the sex scenes were intended to be wacky or hot or both, and that made them seem somehow more intimate - even though there isn't a lot of nudity, you feel like you are watching something deeply private as these inexperienced lovers bumble their way through a haze of physical desire.
While San-hyeon feels guilty for all he's doing, Tae-ju embraces their relationship with a scary ferocity (young actress Kim Ok-vin plays her with feral childishness). She wants nothing more than to escape her claustrophic family life, her needy husband and controlling mother-in-law. And she manages to pull San-hyeon down a dark path in order to break free of them. With his priest's robes, superstrength, and newfound carnality, San-hyeon has come to embody the romantic vampire myth - except that he's still trying to be moral. Eventually, he brings Tae-ju into undeath with him and their world really gets grotesque.
Throughout the film, we never forget that these characters' new status as monsters does not release them from the burdens of humanity. They cannot just fling away their responsibilities and become joyful creatures of the night. The priest still has his parishioners and brothers of the cloth; and Tae-ju has her (awful) family and household. No matter how craven the two of them get, they still take a creepy kind of responsibility for their community.
It's this emotional paradox - abandon coupled with duty - that makes our characters so intriguing. They are trapped by social expectations in a society that doesn't acknowledge their existence.
There are certainly flaws in Thirst, not the least of which is its long running time - almost 2 hours - which causes some of the comedy to go sour. Scenes that should be quick, freaky ballets of violent comedy are drawn out into unwelcome queasiness like a SNL skit that's gone on too long. Perhaps that's Park's intent, but it feels clumsy rather than artful. And a subplot about the couple's guilt over what they've done to Tae-ju's husband feels gratuitous and tacked-on. We already know they feel guilty - that's the point of the film - so there's no need to drive it home further.
Despite these problems, the movie is one of the most compelling and genuinely strange portraits of vampire life I've ever seen. In this way, it resembles Let The Right One In, which never denies complexity to its characters. Thirst will get under your skin, and scenes from the film will infect your mind for days afterward, refusing to let you go.