Read an interview with Park here
A director’s long-gestating personal project can take many forms: a nostalgic childhood reminiscence, a remake of a well-loved classic, that treasured first script that never made it out of the drawer. For Park Chan-Wook, who single-handedly exploded the Korean film industry in the past decade with ‘JSA’ and ‘Oldboy’, it was a new twist on a generic staple: the vampire movie. But in an industry saturated with bloodsuckers, all trying to inject fresh ideas into age-old material, even the boldest filmmaker can struggle to make an impression: this year alone we’ve had frosty vampires in ‘Let the Right One In’, steamy vampires in ‘True Blood’ and teen-abstinence vampires in ‘Twilight’.
Park’s technique is to jettison all that’s old-fashioned and predictable in vampire lore – the fangs, the garlic, the castle on the hill – and replace them with his own personal and ethical obsessions. ‘Thirst’ is less a horror story of prowling nightstalkers than a melodrama of moral corruption: how far is it possible for a good man to fall?
Sang-hyon (Song Kang-ho) is a man seeking martyrdom, a Jesuit priest who offers himself as a sacrificial lamb to an African clinic specialising in the fatal EV virus. But as the virus takes hold and Sang-hyon breathes his last, an emergency blood transfusion brings him roaring back to life – as one of the undead. Before long, the priest is battling the kinds of cravings he’s spent a lifetime denying: female companionship and fresh meat.
‘Thirst’ is a flawed piece of work: Park’s view of his characters is cynical, at times downright nasty, and his treatment of women – who are without exception self-serving and sadistic – is dubious. The film feels overcrowded, as Park attempts to cram his narrative with enough subtext to fill a season of ‘True Blood’: the vampire as lover and murderer, paragon and parasite, saviour and Satan.
But this anything-goes attitude is also the film’s greatest asset: never allowing his audience a moment to catch their breath, Park slams scene into scene, idea into idea with dizzying intensity. Moments of exquisite tenderness are shattered by images of unspeakable horror, all overlaid with an outrageous, wonderfully distasteful seam of pitch-black humour and brute, confrontational eroticism.
For all its flaws, this is a breathless, invigorating experience, a headlong plunge into Park’s personal abyss and a surprisingly thoughtful take on flawed human morality. That it’s also a rollicking, hysterical splatter-sex-comedy only confirms ‘Thirst’ as one of the year’s more extreme, enjoyable entertainments.