[Review] ‘Thirst’ charts a new course for vampire films

By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: April 27, 2009

“Thirst,” directed by Park Chan-wook, is deeply provocative in various aspects. But those who expect the extreme cinematic pyrotechnics seen in “Oldboy” might be only partially satisfied. Given that Park’s latest vampire tale has made it to the prestigious competition section in the forthcoming Cannes film festival next month, it is natural that public expectations are fairly high.

As with Park’s other films, however, “Thirst” is not for a mainstream viewer. The film graphically illustrates human thirst in the form of sex, guilt and death — a merciless concoction that may shock audiences.

The film starts off in a serene mood. A down-to-earth yet bored priest Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) routinely witnesses patient deaths in a hospital. He volunteers for a secret project abroad, a medical experiment that might lead to his death. Undaunted, he flies off to the lab, gets an injection of blood, and things begin to fall apart in an utterly unexpected way.

When he wakes up, Sang-hyun realizes that he’s the only survivor of the lab experiment. What’s more, he has transformed into a vampire who needs to drink human blood to stay alive.

Thankfully, he is always near a source of fresh blood — hospital. In the name of performing Catholic rituals for sick patients, he manages to find and steals blood from patients in a vegetative state and, more conveniently, hospital refrigerators where blood packs are aplenty.

So far, so good. The real challenge arises when he joins a weekly Majong game at his friend’s house. It does not take long before Sang-hyun notices sexual advances from his friend’s wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), a femme fatal armed with gimmicks and yearnings.

It is easy to forecast bloody results when Sang-hyun gets physically entangled with Tae-ju. What’s surprising is the filmmaker’s resolve to spare no blood to describe the unfortunate priest-turned-vampire’s ever-growing thirst for satisfaction.

Sang-hyun, as a priest, feels a sense of guilt and helplessness about his transformation throughout the film. His job is to save souls, but his own soul is now in the hands of an inner vampire. To maintain his life, he has no other choice but to go out and steal some blood, either from living targets or from the hospital’s blood storage.

This dilemma gets amplified when Sang-hyun loses grip on his own vampire blood and a Korean vampire network begins to form. The ultimate question for Sang-hyun is whether he will stop the spread of lethal blood even at the cost of his own life, and the film’s second half is duly devoted to portraying Sang-hyun’s painful efforts to turn things around.

Director Park wisely interrupts the unbridled blood-sucking drama by offering several dialogues where Sang-hyun delivers comic lines, as if he is not really serious about what he’s talking about. Such humor is typical of Park, who seems to want audiences not to take the drama too seriously.

Before the press preview, critics and reporters were given hints about extreme nudity concerning the heroine, Kim Ok-vin. The hints were not totally misguided, but the real show-stopper came from Song Kang-ho’s explicit nudity at a crucial scene.

Whether Song’s nudity should have been necessary is debatable. What’s certain, however, is that Song’s performance in “Thirst” is respectable in every aspect. He brings to life a Korean priest who struggles to deal with a sudden change in fate. Song’s facial and body expressions are also expertly performed to reflect the character’s angst, self-doubt and uncontrollable desires.

Kim Ok-vin, a rookie in Korean cinema, equally tops expectations. Kim acts up the crucial character who infuses a much-needed toxic dose of vitality and viciousness to the vampire saga.

Despite the first-class acting by the two main characters, “Thirst” may not be in the same league as “Oldboy” in terms of extreme visuals and thematic boldness. But the film will surely satisfy the thirst of those wanting a ruthless blood-sucking vampire fare.

“Thirst,” distributed by CJ Entertainment, was released nationwide on April 30.