Trust Park Chan-wook to actually do something with vampires just as we find ourselves in the midst of Twilight‘s treacly soap operatics. Considering the South Korean director’s unflinching depictions of violence and penchant for pitch-black humor, it’s actually surprising it’s taken him this long to try the genre on for size. Thirst is Park’s first American release since the conclusion of his revenge film cycle, a series consisting of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance and dubbed, appropriately, the Vengeance trilogy. These films (Oldboy especially) provided him with an international audience enamored with his talent for beautifully framing and photographing acts of violence, as well as his skill for portraying morally ambiguous, existential tragedies.
Thirst introduces us to Sang-hyun (Park regular Song Kang-hoo), a devout priest who volunteers for an experimental procedure in order to cure the Emmanuel Virus, a disease that kills anyone who contracts it. Miraculously he survives, and upon returning to his parish finds himself worshipped as a messiah by members of his congregation. This newfound celebrity brings Sang-hyun back into contact with a childhood friend and his friend’s young wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), with whom he becomes smitten. Soon after, Sang-hyun suddenly dies from the delayed effects of EV, only to be resurrected the following day with a newfound lust for blood (and other earthly desires).
Song portrays Sang-hyun as a deeply conflicted man, one who finds it hard to understand the evils of the world. On finding himself turned into a creature of the night, he’s initially exhilarated and uses the transformation to indulge in previously forbidden vices. All the while, Song plays the priest with an nearly blank expression, deftly reigning in any grandstanding or scenery-chewing that other, lesser actors may have succumbed to. He allows the audience to read the emotions on his face, however subtle they may be.
But as good as Song Kang-hoo is, the real star of the Thirst is Kim Ok-bin ,whose performance as Tae-ju fills in the major chords left unplayed by Song Kang-hoo’s more reserved portrayal. Ok-bin is a victim of circumstance, forced to marry her infantile husband for lack of options. Sang-hyun acts as a catalyst in her life; his presence allows her to tap into her dormant sexuality and as a result Tae-ju sees him as a means of escape from every aspect of her dreary life. She’s not even that unnerved when she finds out Sang-hyun’s secret; rather, she encourages his worst impulses.
As the film progresses, Tae-ju is changed from a mousy doorstop into a bloodthirsty maniac who revels in the same acts Sang-hyun begins to despise. He makes bad choices based on false information provided by her, and these choices allow her to dominate the increasingly guilt-stricken Sang-hyun. Kim only began acting professionally in 2005, but here displays an ability far in excess of her limited experience.
Thirst might not stay with you in the same way the Vengeance trilogy does. The plot doesn’t cover much new ground when it comes to the vampire genre, and it doesn’t possess the same thematic breadth of the aforementioned works. But the film is so well-shot and acted that this is largely a moot point. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, a film is not so much what it’s about as how it’s about. While many might be able to make a perfectly servicable film out of Thirst’s script, ultimately it’s Park Chan-wook’s unique vision and the superlative performance of his two leads that make the finished product as special as it is.