Review: Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst”

Park Chan-wook’s vampire movie Thirst claims as its literary pedigree Émile Zola’s classic novel Thérèse Raquin. The combination of this lofty source material with a lurid tale of a priest turned vampire who eagerly, though not without pangs of conscience, succumbs to the pleasures of the flesh, is an irresistible (to some) confluence of highbrow art and lowbrow exploitation. This perhaps made it inevitable that it would win a prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival – it won the Jury Prize (third place), shared with Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. The film’s protagonist, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a devout priest who regularly gives last rites to terminal patients at a hospital. His daily exposure to the dying makes him long to do more to alleviate the suffering he sees daily. To that end, he travels to an unnamed African country to subject himself to an experiment that is meant to develop a vaccine for a mysterious disease called the “Emmanuel Virus.” He comes down with this virus, the main symptoms of which are coughing up blood and breaking out in large pustules on the skin. He dies as a result, but is miraculously brought back to life by a blood transfusion that turns him into a vampire. Sang-hyun still carries the virus, but when he drinks blood, his lesions and boils disappear. Upon his return to Korea, he becomes a legend as the sole survivor of the experiment, and people believe he has great healing powers and implore him to cure them. At the hospital, Sang-hyun has a chance meeting with Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), an old childhood friend. Kang-woo, who has an unspecified mental disability, lives at home with his mother (Kim Hae-sook) and his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), who was taken in by his mother as an orphaned child, and has since become a slave to the family. Tae-ju longs for escape from her circumstances, forced to be both wife and mother to Kang-woo and having to listen to the sentimental old Korean tunes her mother-in-law plays incessantly. Tae-ju tempts the priest into breaking his vows of chastity, in sex scenes that have become a major selling point of the film. Later, she finds out he is a vampire – initially repulsed by this, she becomes drawn in, and latches onto this as her means of liberation from her domestic prison.

In Thirst, Park supplies all the elements of his previous films that have pleased audiences and divided critics: the copious gushing blood, the rending of flesh, and the baroque style that were hallmarks of his so-called “revenge trilogy” – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. After a brief thematic departure with the oddball and very charming mental hospital romantic comedy I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, he returns to his previous mode with this film. In a way, Thirst combines elements of both the revenge trilogy and I’m a Cyborg. Comic elements combine with the bloody vampire tale to very unsettling and disorienting effect – it becomes a different film from scene to scene, and sometimes minute to minute. At one point it’s a somber religious parable; at another it is a blackly absurdist domestic comedy; at yet another it is a Double Indemnity-style film noir; at still another it is a distinctly Korean melodrama (although heightened to parodic effect). Unfortunately, on the evidence of this film, Park’s style is beginning to yield diminishing returns. The film is all over the place tonally, and the wildly disparate elements on display – reflected in the film’s production design, a chaotic East-meets-West mélange of brightly-colored hanbok (Korean traditional clothing), designs inspired by French artist Odilon Redon, and colonial-era Japanese architecture – never jell into anything substantial.

We’ve seen the vampire tale many times before in the cinema, and in the past this has resulted in some very haunting and beautiful films, for example Dreyer’s Vampyr and Nosferatu (both the Murnau and Herzog versions). All the familiar vampire folklore, such as aversion to sunlight, sleeping in a coffin, the search for human blood, is replicated in Thirst, albeit with significant modifications. The vampire’s repulsion by garlic would presumably not have made sense in a Korean context, garlic being such an essential component to Korean food. Park adds a twist by having his protagonist be a priest, whose transformation into a vampire through a blood transfusion is the beginning of his passage from faithful servant of God to animalistic hell-bound vampire. (The Korean title of the film is “The Bat.”) Of course, since the vampire in this story is a priest, fear of the cross doesn’t come into play. This idea has great potential – the struggle between dedication to his faith and the urges that are a result of his transformation promises to be very compelling. However, Park never takes this scenario anywhere beyond this high concept idea; there is such an arch air to the proceedings that it all ultimately becomes incredibly hollow and superficial. This is certainly not the fault of any of its performances – the film boasts some very strong supporting actors, and while Song Kang-ho is always compelling to watch (although he is restrained by Park and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung’s muddled script), the true revelation here is Kim Ok-vin (Dasepo Naughty Girls, Voice), transforming herself into a sexy and lithe live-wire who embodies her sexually awakened character with gusto and energetic brio. A word to the wise: those expecting extended torrid sex scenes between Park and Kim will be sorely disappointed; as is usually the case in film publicity, this aspect of the film was ridiculously over-hyped, both during and after production.

The main problem with Thirst, even beyond its overlong repetition and slack pace, is that there is never any real internal struggle evident in the character of Sang-hyun; he succumbs quite easily to sin – too easily. This superficiality extends to just about everything else we see – since there is very little at stake for anyone, it is very hard to care about any of the characters or what happens to them. This was certainly not the case with the revenge trilogy; despite Park being vilified from many corners for his depictions of extreme violence, this was in the service of a serious engagement with the moral issues explored in the films. In Thirst, Park seems content with having his characters be merely pieces on a chessboard, puppets to be moved around in ways that clearly amuses him, but precious little of that translates to us in the audience. Thirst, in the end, is all style and very little substance.