Never has the dubbing of Park Chan-wook as the “Korean David Lynch” been more apt than after viewing his latest offering, the incredibly complex and stirring Thirst. Lynch has an uncanny ability to eviscerate the mundane until the inner workings are revealed in all their horror, glory and grotesquerie. With his Vengeance Trilogy, Park does the same, only rather than cutting his protagonists open, he breaks them apart shard by uncomfortably jagged shard. He’s known for his visceral and stomach churning acts of violence, but with Thirst, he creates an homage to the vampire mythos that is damn near perfect. Park remembers what most people who reinvent Dracula forget — at the core it’s a love story. It’s everything Twilight wishes it were, but at such an intensity that it would make Edward Cullen super sparkly before supernova-ing out of emo existence. At heart, Thirst is a coming-of-age love story for two quarter-lifers breaking out of their arrested developments, except wrapped within and around it is a vein of pure vampire goodness. Park also presents it as a stunningly hilarious pitch-dark comedy while still managing to keep the skin-crawling horror elements he’s known for, and you’re left with a gleefully evil and satisfying experience.
Father Sang-Hyun (Song Kang-ho, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) spends his days at a hospital saying prayers for the ill. He decides to volunteer to test a vaccine for a virus called Emmanuel that’s killing the men. The virus causes pustules to form on the skin, and potentially coughing up blood. Sang-Hyun almost achieves sainthood when he becomes the only person ever to recover from the virus, rising literally from the dead to become a vampire. What’s refreshing about this film is it avoids the trap of the “what am I, what am I becoming” montage. Sang-Hyun figures out pretty quick he’s a vampire and begins slurping coma victims to satiate his hunger. The rules of vampirism in this film stick to the traditional, where sunlight makes cigarette burns and not body glitter. Also, the vampires have incredible strength, leaping abilities that extend virtually to flight, and the regenerative healing powers. All of which are demonstrated with almost ballet like poignancy and grace.
While doing rounds, the priest is accosted by an older woman who insists he come and pray over her son to cure his cancer. Mrs. Ra (Kim Hae-sook) drags the priest bedside, where he discovers the sickly mama’s boy Kang-woo (Shin Haykun), who turns out to be an old childhood friend, and his foster-sister turned Kang-woo’s wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). Kang-woo takes a turn for the better, and to celebrate, they invite Father Sang-Hyun to join their weekly Mah Jong games.
The story becomes almost Brothers Grimmesque as we delve into the character of the wife Tae-ju. Her parents abandoned her at a young age by leaving her with their landlord, the cruel Mrs. Ra, who took the girl in, fed and clothed her, and kept her as a constant companion for her dullard boy. Tae-ju now finds herself in a Cinderellan hell, where she’s forced to tend to the mother’s dress shop and to the needs of her constantly ill husband as she’s berated and insulted by everyone. So naturally, Tae-ju and Father Sang-Hyun fall in love. But this love becomes carnal and almost animalistic. Rather than two shy doves who gently nuzzle, they are tigers tearing at flesh, rending clothing, and mounting one another whenever they get the chance. Tae-ju wants free from her life, so she convinces her new sinful priest/lover to murder her husband after she cut herself and blamed it her weakling husband.
The film is oddly fetishistic. Most of the sex goes into the realm of toe sucking, armpit licking, sniffing and probing of wounds, and self-mutilation. There’s still that almost trademark need to go after the mouth. It becomes uncomfortable, and that’s before the blood starts flowing. Arterially. Park knows how to use sound like a weapon, jabbing his audience to raise the awfulness of the acts. The two lovers don’t just kiss; they slurp and lick one another. The entire film squishes like sodden carpet, layered with crunches and smooshes and splorches like an onomatopoeic orgy described by Dr. Seuss. Any idiot can make things bleed. Park loves the sanguine richness of fresh blood. He doesn’t just use a standard red, but mixes in dark violets and stormy plum to create art. He paints with veins, using the landscape to create beauty in gruesome acts.
The performances of the two leads are what truly make the film. Father Sang-Hyun is practically statuary, keeping his emotionless face granite until he needs to suddenly rage or scream. There’s an ice that hardens his features that make the priest fearsome. He’s able to mete out his actions just enough to keep the character from becoming an automaton. But the real star of the film is Kim Ok-vin as Tae-ju. I never thought I’d find an Asian scarier than the deet-deet-deet girl from Audition or William Hung. But she’s a monster. She’s vicious, manipulative, and soulless. Her laugh is cruelty, that high pitched giggle most Asian character do sliced with a wicked grin so sharp it’ll take off the top of your skull before you can say haircut. The interplay between her and the priest reminds me of Double Indemnity, watching an angel turn into the devil. It’s amazing.
Thirst blew my mind because while I knew Park Chan-wook could horrify me, I didn’t think he would be able to amuse me. It’s a funny film, and it knows it’s funny, which adds to it. It’s not playing for yucks so much as just imbuing itself with a devious satirical streak and sinister motives. The story itself plays out so simply, but there’s such a richness to it, where you don’t know if you’re going to get served eroticism, terror, or laughter. If there’s a failing, it’s that there’s a meandering pace in the middle, which might have bothered me if not for the incredible final scene.
The film is a constant surprise. They showed all the good parts in the trailer, but in the context of the film, they are so much more powerful. From the trailer we see a person in shadowy silhouette walking away from a car as a figure sails through the dawn sky behind them, bounding upwards like an unnatural creature. It looks cool for the trailer, but when you realize who those characters are, and why they are there, and what is happening, it’s such a phenomenal moment. It’s a beautiful film that’s slightly sticky and squishy and squeam-inducing. I enjoyed Let The Right One In, but I would easily say if you can get past the strangeness of the fetishistic nature, Thirst is a far superior film. And it sure beats the bejeezus out of New Moon.