While ostensibly a vampire film, Thirst never fits neatly in to the genre, occasionally succumbing to its cliches but always just sidestepping its imperatives. It furnishes a metaphysical, even a humanist, model—provoking a more profound moral interpretation from a genre subsumed by fantastical violence. The affliction of the lead necessitates violence to be sure but fantasy, for the most part, is flatly discarded. Unconcerned with vampire lore, indicated by form and early on with a somewhat more realistic than usual cause of the disease, Thirst instead beckons our attention upon the politics of sex, violence and virtue.
Immediately striking, and signaling a departure from convention, is Park’s opening sequence. Rather than an ordinary establishing shot introducing characters or setting, we get a parable of sorts with strong overtones of foreshadowing—and perhaps a dichotomy as well. There is a very large man in a hospital bed: near death, having slaked his arteries gluttonously for many years. Heavy of breath, he shares a story from his youth in which he overcame his strong hunger so that two starving children might eat. He asks our lead, a priest having entered mid-anecdote, “Think God will remember that?” and then he dies shortly after. This implicates the fate of our lead who, though he has yet to be formally introduced, has seen the consequences of succumbing to base desire and will shortly be burdened with his own appetites.
Thus, Thirst concerns the trials of this man: a priest named Sang-hyun, ably portrayed by rising star and Park regular Kang-ho Song. Sensing that something in his life, his service to the Church, or something in the world around him (poverty, misery) is terribly amiss he decides to volunteer for an experiment to find a cure for a lethal disease known as the Emmanuel Virus—one afflicting only men. Sang-hyun is the only man of 50 to survive a dose of the virus as a result of a tainted blood infusion. After recovering he becomes a sort of demigod, called “The Bandaged Saint,” to the masses of his congregation—many of whom attempt to follow in his footsteps, boosting the number of dead dramatically. He soon discovers that he now requires human blood to satiate the latent effects of the disease.
The experiment in the beginning is a brilliantly executed accelerated montage, encapsulating months in less than 8 minutes of screen time. This tactic is employed to great effect elsewhere in the film, such as the rhapsody of blood lust overtaking Sang-hyun for the first time, and in Park’s other films; something he is fond of and also exceedingly good at.
Kang-woo is a new member of the congregation and, recognizing him as a schoolfriend, invites Sang-hyun to join his family Mahjong night. His wife, Tae-ju, is oppressed in their home; living as a servile caretaker for Kang-woo, who is enfeebled, and subject to a didactic mother-in-law, her life is misery. She slips out of the house in the middle of the night to run through the city streets—her secret and temporary liberation. She is immediately attracted to Sang-hyun, despite his relationship to the church, and he to her, but she attempts to repress her feelings as Sang-hyun struggles to chasten his new-found powers.
Once reciprocated, the sexual/violent escapade to follow propels the plot: Sang-hyun attempts a moral life, preferring to steal blood packets from the hospital rather than to kill. Of course the disease allows only a vestige of his former self for even stealing (and in this case from those who desperately need blood) is something he would never do as a priest. This may lessen the internal struggle because the story progresses in such a way that renouncing the church (and his humanity) is inevitable—the lingering question is not “if” but “when.” And indeed he does, steadily exploiting his powers, taking another man’s wife and soon progressing to murder.
Thirst manages to glibly juggle its narrative focus: the supernatural is always in view, but for a film rife with blood and death the most engaging (and memorable) elements remain the troubling domestic life of Tae-ju and her liberating romance with Sang-hyun. On top of these sexual politics, and perhaps fueling them, a theme emerges: humanity is a fragile thing indeed and the good life, even for the pious among us, must be cultivated. Justifying his first despicable act as necessary for survival, Sang-hyun steadily, and easily, drifts toward perdition. The vampire genre, then, is a means for these didacticisms rather than an end-in-itself (as so many other films are).
For some reason I imagined a vampire tale beneath this director and therefore approached it with trepidation. Vampires are very bankable items in the oughts and it seemed Park Chan-wook might be cashing in as he did with his timely vengeance trilogy (which were, to me, in vogue at the time thanks to films like Kill Bill). I do not intend to disparage his earlier work (or its fans) for those films are certainly worthy of praise. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this director after his epic vengeance trilogy. If nothing else, he has succeeded here in inverting expectation by offering a very refreshing take on the vampire genre, filled with dark, brackish humor of the sort we’ve come to expect from this filmmaker and which only Park seems capable.