Sex. Blood. Desire. Thirst. The eros of vampires has long been a staple of the genre, both metaphorically (bloodlust as sexual hunger) and literally (biting the neck as conquest). Which makes Park Chan-wook’s vampire, a Catholic priest infected through a medical experiment, such a curious and fascinating test case. Sang-hyeon (Park regular Song Kang-ho), the resident priest at a hospital, just wants to save people. Instead, he becomes a bloodsucker who snacks on a comatose patient through a feeding tube, trying to keep his desires in check while his needs become greater.
Behind that soft, gentle, open face is one of the most versatile and prolific actors in South Korean. Song has played everything from killers to victims to survivors driven to revenge—and that’s just in Park’s filmography. Here he plays his most ambiguous and multi-faceted figure, a man torn between morality and instinct, faith and desires of the flesh (and blood). He may be damned, by the teachings of own religious beliefs, but vampirism has given him an even greater ferocity to live (so to speak).
For Sang, it’s just another test of his convictions, his bloodlust another desire to resist. He resorts to his own brand of flagellation in response to sexual arousal, beating his thighs as self-punishment (or is it merely his extreme form of a cold shower?). Tae-ju (Ok-vin), the miserable, misused wife of a childhood friend and object of Sang’s recharged desire, mirrors him with her own self-punishment, but her masochistic tendencies are rooted in frustration, rage and perhaps the need to feel some kind of sensation, however painful. For Tae-ju, the idea of vampirism is the promise of escape. “I’ve lived like a dog with them my whole life,” she confesses to Sang after discovering his secret. She’s ready to go feral and begs Sang to turn her. And why not? When she asks him to show her his power, he leaps across rooftops of her neighborhood carrying her in his arms, a ride even more exhilarating than the romantic sail through the forest in Twilight. Tae-ju squeals in delight, her eyes wide like a child’s, laughing for the first time since we’ve met her. A victim her entire life, she’s ready to be the predator.
These lovers become the two poles of Thirst: the denial of desire and the embrace of power, the moral balance and the moral absence. It takes death to make Sang want to experience the visceral charge of life he’s denied himself in the priesthood, and desire for Tae-ju drives him to acts he would otherwise find unconscionable, and eventually, inevitably does. Park hits all the classic vampire themes in a loose, often meandering narrative that enters The Postman Always Rings Twice territory with an undercurrent of Catholic guilt, holy miracle and supernatural thriller. Park has so many ideas that he tends to move on to the next before he fully explores the first.
But Thirst also has a cheeky sense of humor and understated visual wit. “Did you eat?” someone asks Sang as he watches over the coma patient. “Uh, yeah,” he answers, as his eyes drift over to his dinner. Later he nonchalantly fills up sports bottles from the patient’s drug drip that doubles as Sang’s feeding tube, now a veritable spigot. Song Kang-ho plays Sang with a reserve that suggests he finds no pleasure in his newfound powers and the charge he gets from his newfound sex life comes with a guilt hangover. Pretty soon the guilt doesn’t even wait until he’s finished. Park doesn’t make it clear whether the sudden appearance of a waterlogged witness to his sins between the sheets—even between the bodies—of the adultery bed is ghost or merely manifestation of his shame, but it makes for crazily inspired imagery that cuts to the heart of the matter with wicked wit. Damned if he does and damned if he don’t, he finally accepts that damnation with a calm resignation and embarks on the only path to redemption this holy man can fathom.
Directed by Park Chan-wook; featuring Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-vin, Kim Hae-sook. In Korean with English subtitles. R for graphic bloody violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content, nudity and language. 133 minutes.