I finally saw Thirst, the Korean vampire movie by director Chan-wook Park. I first heard about it the past summer when I read that it won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. I had been waiting for it to be released with English subtitles ever since. Kang-ho Song plays a devote priest, Father Sang-hyeon, who has become a vampire as the result of being a part of an experiment on the Emmanuel Virus, a deadly virus with no cure. He succumbs to the virus, as do all participants in the experiment, but he receives a blood transfusion when the doctors try to resuscitate him. Later, Father Sang-hyeon speculates that the blood was somehow vampiric and transformed him into a vampire. Song, by the way, is the incompetent father from Host, another Korean gem.
If Daybreaker won the prize for most unvampiric vampires, Thirst wins for just being downright bizarre. What makes it so odd is that it mixes genres with wild abandon. Host was like this too. The movie starts out rather earnestly as it looks at the conflict that the priest faces as a sincere man of faith who suddenly finds himself to be a vampire. Since he was the first person out of 50 to have ever survived the Emmanuel Virus, he has been elevated to the level of saint in the eyes of many. However, he cannot bear the adoration because of the terrible things he must do to keep the virus at bay. One particularly grotesque scene shows him drinking the blood of comatose patients at the hospital where he volunteers by hooking them to an IV and then lying on the floor with the other end of the IV in his mouth, like some kind of monstrous straw. One really captivating scene involves the priest confessing to his superior, Father Noh, that he has become a vampire. However, rather than revile him, Father Noh offers him his own blood in a perversion of communion that is simultaneously profoundly unsettling and touching. Father Noh offers him his own blood so that he no longer has to feed on others.
As Father Sang-hyeon struggles with his new “life,” circumstances reunite him with childhood friends, including Tae-ju, a young woman who was abandoned at a shop run by Lady Ra and later married off to her son. Tae-jun is a pathetic creature, unloved and taken advantage of her entire life, her life now is subject to the whims of her over-bearing mother-in-law and her ridiculous, chronically ill husband. Father Sang-hyeon falls in love with Tae-jun and eventually the two begin an affair.
And this is where things get weird.
Under the influence of Tae-ju, Sang-hyeon begins to sort of grudgingly accept his vampire nature. Tae-ju is like a kid in a candy shop asking him to perform all kind of ridiculous acts of strength to prove his powers (Jump to that building! Tear this penny in half! Carry me over there!). The tone of the film slowly turns from serious and morbid to black humor. And it will change again and again. As the movie poster suggests,Sang-hyeon eventually turns Tae-ju into a vampire and the two of them become locked in a “war of the roses”-like struggle — bound together by hate and love, each trying to thwart the plans of the other. Their problem is that while Sang-hyeon wants to figure out how they can live rightly, Tae-ju relishes her new powers and freedom and absolutely relishes preying on others. She blossoms into a femme fatale right before our eyes.
The way in which Tae-ju and Sang-hyeon redecorate the mother-in-law’s house alone is a reason to watch the movie. It’s crazy. But totally perfect too.
There is just so much packed into the movie that I can’t even begin to do it justice here. The film wanders on and on, becoming completely absurd. But the movie never ceases to take the predicament of our vampire lovers seriously. What else could a former man of faith do, when faced with the truth that he has created a monster and released it on the world? And how else would a completely suppressed woman do when suddenly offered ultimate power and the chance to prey on the ones that had preyed on her for her entire life? And that weird tension is what keeps the movie from becoming a ridiculous farce. You get the sense that the director knows exactly where he is going at all times and you’re just along for this macabre ride.