Vampires at the Art House: Park Chan-wook’s Cannes Jury Prize-Winner Thirst

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Park Chan-wook is renowned as the auteur of the brutal, which he presents with such pictorial flair that a sense of grandeur suffuses even his most macabre blindsides. The standard-bearer of Korean cinema (Old Boy, Lady Vengeance) returns in style — if not substance — with Thirst, another outré morality tale that follows a priest as he becomes a vampire and partakes in the Seven Deadly Sins. As Park describes, Thirst is a “scandalous vampire melodrama” that also happens to be darkly funny, creepy, spasmodically poetic, and frequently — for better and for worse — outrageous.

Song Kang-ho (of The Host and Park’s earlier knockouts) plays Sang-hyun, a pious clergyman whose compassion for others impels him to become a vaccine subject for a nasty, deadly virus. Selfless mission, to say the least. Except Sang-hyun — after a gushing Bach session on his recorder — doesn’t exactly die; like Lazarus, he rises up again after a blood transfusion, muttering biblical verse to verify the operation-room miracle. Unfortunately for the Samaritan, the blood coursing through his veins happens to be o-positive vampire (it’s never explained where said red comes from, but Sang-hyun calls his survival a “psychological effect”) and, with blogospheric speed, a cult forms to beg the Bandaged Saint to heal them and their loved ones.

Soon, Spider-Man’s mantra (“With great power comes great responsibility”) echoes in his head, especially as he discovers his new found indestructibility and his insatiable urge for a refreshing pint of ichor. Thus, his do-unto-others ethic is mightily tested, but Sang-hyun proves to be a vampire who obviates bloodsucking (think Bill Compton from True Blood) in favor of siphoning blood from the comatose or slurping pouches of the stuff as if they were Capri Suns.

Then, Sang-hyun’s flesh-and-blood temptation shuffles into the plot in the form of Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). She’s that easy-come, easy-go girl whose home life with her “bloodsucking” mother-in-law and her sickly, irksome husband leads her to the smitten Sang-hyun. Thus begins a sensual courtship that features a night of rooftop leaping, followed by loud, awkward, and really slobbery sex scenes (no exaggeration here: the once-chaste priest licks armpit and toe with fetishistic relish), and finally the soap-operatic problem of her possibly abusive husband.

This can only end badly, as Tae-ju undergoes a transformation that plays out with more spray and liberated ferocity than the parting of the Red Sea. It’s a XX-spin on the the evil, mad-as-hell vampire that sets up the late scenes of coexistence at odds, which all mischievously underscore the notion of ’til death do them part.

Park offsets the flat interludes in the film — such as the father-son exchanges — with bouts of sensory overload, particularly the brushstrokes of red against holy-white backgrounds. At that, the violent acts pale in comparison with the prolonged scenes of, well, the nasty. Park retains his editing bravura which combines jarring contrasts with lyrical match cuts, and his amped-up sound design immerses the viewer in the story’s full-bore design.

But what comes through best are the unexpected, pitch-black bits of humor. For instance, after the two consummate their affair, Sang-hyun drops this après-sex stunner: “I’m a vampire.” Taeju, initially taken aback, responds that “vampires are cuter than I thought.” In a movie with a plot twist in which an invalid can communicate using blinks and mahjong tiles, the cockeyed line is amusingly matter-of-fact and also contains a truth about this carnal, entertaining but uneven effort. In short, animalistic instinct clouds rational thought.

View the trailer below.