Park Chan-Wook’s Vampire Thriller is a Delightfully Offbeat Horror Film.
DIRECTED BY PARK CHAN-WOOK /KOREAN/ 2009
STREET DATE JUNE 18, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
To say that there has never been another film like Thirst is, perhaps, an exaggeration. It is, however, quite its own thing. I’d call its tragic tale of a priest who becomes a vampire via blood transfusion ‘operatic,’ and that’s a very good descriptor, but don’t mistake that for being ‘stodgy.’ Thirst is, by turns, blood-soaked, erotic, darkly comic, full of body horror and containing weird delights.
Song Kang-ho (The Host, Parasite) plays a middle-aged priest named Sang-hyun who travels to Africa in order to take part in a medical experiment he hopes will save countless lives from a terrible, leprosy-like disease. He contracts the disease, and in the race to save his life, the doctors give him a blood transfusion. Unbeknownst to all and sundry, the blood they used has come from a vampire! When Sang-hyun returns to Korea (where he is worshipped by a small group of followers who call him ‘the Bandaged Saint’ due to his seemingly miraculous recovery from the disease), he finds that his senses have become almost unbearably heightened (he can feel the mites on his skin), he burns at the touch of sunlight, and he has an overwhelming thirst for human blood. Horrified by the implications of his new existence, he tries to kill himself, but discovers he is impervious to injury. His bad eyesight even corrects itself (in a scene reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man).
Sang-hyun is approached by Mrs. Ra (Kim Hae-sook) who begs him to cure her son, Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), of cancer because she believes he is capable of miracles. It turns out that Kang-woo and Sang-hyun know each other from when they were children. Sang-hyun also knows Kang-woo’s young wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). Tae-ju feels trapped and stifled by her marriage to Kang-woo, and is drawn to the priest. Sang-hyun tries to keep his libido in check, but he admits to his superior that he now “thirsts after all human pleasures.” His vampirism has awakened something in him, and that in turn has awakened something in Tae-ju.
And all of this occurs only in the first 30 minutes of Thirst‘s two hours. A lot happens in this movie as its storyline mashes up David Croneberg’s The Fly with a Hitchcockian thriller, and Interview with the Vampire. There’s a lot to unpack, and one viewing will not do this movie justice. Director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker) has mentioned several influences on the movie’s story. First and foremost is the novel Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. I won’t go into particulars, for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that Thirst follows the book quite closely, with the obvious addition of vampirism.
The color pallette for a good part of the film, particularly early on, is mostly muted. The only color that pops is, appropriately for a vampire film, red. The red color of the blood, as the commentary track reveals, is based on the color of Park’s favorite wine, Burgundy. The visual symbolism of equating wine with blood recurs throughout the film. Sang-hyun even drinks blood from a wound inflicted by a corkscrew at one point.
The trailer for Thirst that is included on Kino Lorber’s blu-ray (along with a handfull of other trailers) shows a dark, intense, and deeply erotic thriller. Thirst is all of that, but there’s also an off-beat gallows humor running throughout the film. Sang-hyun hallucinates the reappearance of one of his victims in some of the most awkward ways. His ability to regenerate instantly causes some unexpected problems. And the matter-of-fact ways he uses his vampiric strength throughout the movie provide some grim chuckles.
I’ll admit to not having seen any of Park’s other movies (yes, not even Oldboy or The Handmaiden) so I don’t know how Thirst fits in among his oeuvre. The style and offbeat tone of this vampire story has me curious about his other works. Thirst was right up my alley and I find myself thirsting after all the pleasures Park can show me.
As mentioned earlier, Kino Lorber has included a commentary track by Author Bryan Reesman on their Blu-Ray release of Thirst. Reesman’s commentary is informative and insightful and his enthusiasm for the movie (and the work of Park) really shines through. The trailer collection with the film is perfunctory. The film is presented in a 2.32:1 aspect ratio and is in Korean with optional English subtitles.