BUSAN, Korea – Venerable Korean director Park Chan-wook has set his personal bar extremely high, it would seem. His work being celebrated by international critics and audiences alike, mostly for his Vengeance Trilogy (and more specifically Oldboy), Park Chan-wook’s latest offering has been met with lukewarm reception. It is because of the aforementioned trio of exploitation revenge tales that many people see Thirst, Park’s entry into the vampire genre, as being somewhat disappointing. Perhaps some are looking to hold his work to an unreasonably high standard due to their love of Oldboy? I, for one, think Thirst is his best work to date. Yes, even better than Oldboy.
Park Chan-wook no doubt produced a landmark film with Oldboy, and its impact and influence on how Korean cinema is viewed and received by international and domestic audiences is still being felt to this day. However, Oldboy survives as a cult classic more for its visceral edge and taboo shocker of a twist, rather than its examination of its themes and plays on morality. This is where Thirst earns its place above Oldboy, making it not only one of the best films of 2009, but one of the best vampire films ever made.
Thirst, at its core, is a morality tale. Having never been one to shy away from the often raw and gruesome results that arise from betraying ones moral code, Park Chan-wook has crafted a decidedly bold and erotic vampire film by making his central character a priest. The priest is played by Song Kang-ho, and I can think of no one better to perform within the confines of Park’s eccentric and lavish style while still managing to approach the characters’ conflictions with a certain restraint. Due to this superb casting choice, we are given incredible insight into a man whose faith and moral principles are tested against the horrific nature of his affliction.
As a result of a blood transfusion, Priest Sang-hyeon is left at the mercy of a leprous disease that disfigures him at an astonishing rate. It is in this affliction that Sang-hyeon discovers heightened senses and abilities…and a thirst that is triggered when he smells human flesh. Volunteering at the hospital of his parish gives him the opportunity to siphon blood from a comatose patient, and as he drinks he discovers that his leprous sores and disfigurements vanish. The man who would continue to uphold his religious oath is now tested by carnal urges born out of necessity. His very existence under the curse of vampirism is a sin, and despite acknowledging this, he continues to indulge in pleasures of the flesh.
One of these indulgences comes in the form of a misery-stricken housewife, played by Kim Ok-bin. Tae-ju is married into a family who owns a traditional hanbok shop, forcing her to uphold her spousal “duties” by preparing meals and house cleaning. She detests her in-laws, as they make it a note to remind her often that she should be grateful for their taking her in, being an orphaned girl living on the street. The price she pays for being taken in under such “gracious” circumstances is her marriage to a man she loathes even more than her in-laws. Tae-ju is clearly holding back from lashing out, and she finds her first bit of “release” with Priest Sang-hyeon in the back of the hanbok shop in a rather jarring sex scene (and this is just a catalyst for the inevitable). She’s unaware of what Sang-hyeon has become, and her terrified reaction when she discovers his almost animalistic nature is easily one of the best scenes in the film. Kim Ok-bin brings a brazen sensuality and vicious veracity to her role, clearly having fun with the character as she sees Tae-ju giving in to her evil nature that’s been lurking beneath the surface.
The vampire genre has suffered from a lack of innovative approaches to story and character as of late, due largely to the Twilight series. The challenge has always been in finding the right balance between staying true to the mythology while creating something that feels entirely fresh. Park Chan-wook has proven to be the absolute best director to tackle this genre with a daring new vision, given his stylized and undeniably graphic depictions of violence and sex, he’s clearly willing to stay true to the erotic and gruesome mythology of the vampire. He does so with restraint, but when he lets loose, we get all that should be promised by a true vampire film. He not only creates a film that satisfies the genre, but one that compliments his own body of work, sticking with the themes that he enjoys revisiting with such fascinating character studies.
Sang-hyeon’s journey arrives at the only logical conclusion for a man of the cloth, and it is orchestrated in such a way that rivals all other Park Chan-wook films. It’s probably one of the best endings to a vampire film that I’ve ever seen, and that’s no small feat considering Park Chan-wook has to contend with the likes of a recent masterpiece out of Sweden called Let the Right One In. It is because of films like that, and now Thirst, that we can take solace in knowing that there are directors out there who still appreciate what can be done with the vampire genre.
Check out Thomas' other reviews here.