Park Chan-wook may be the most recognizable director from South Korea based solely on his 2003 masterpiece, Oldboy, a modern revenge classic with a massive following and a remake by Spike Lee under its belt. In many ways, the very things that appeal to audiences in Oldboy are Park staples, and they appear abundantly in his 2009 vampire thriller, Thirst—namely vivid urban imagery, disturbing violence and gore, and twisted romances. Though representative of Park’s style, this film marks the beginning of a deviation from the high-octane thrills characteristic of his earlier work to the more controlled mood pieces he’d subsequently make, such as Stoker (2013) and The Handmaiden (2016). These films favor slow burns over propulsive chaos without sacrificing the lurid content or intensity in aesthetic.
South Korean star Song Kang-ho plays Catholic priest Sang-hyun, a devoted humanitarian and spiritual counselor who devotes himself to providing religious services to hospital patients. He has enduring faith in God, but also employs a pragmatic approach to counseling, advising a nurse with suicidal thoughts to “seek God’s help through science and take antidepressants”. In an act of martyrdom he volunteers to be infected with the Emanuel Virus at an African clinic, a plague-like affliction affecting only Asian and Caucasian men. The naming of this virus is the first of many comparisons drawn between vampirism and Christ mythology as Emanuel (originally Immanuel) means “God with us” in Hebrew and prophesied the coming of Jesus according to Christan thought. Several shots of Catholic masses highlight the connection between partaking of the heavenly host and cannibalism, but Sang-hyun’s resurrection and immortality are the most overt metaphors.
After contracting the virus, Sang-hyun develops blisters and sores, and after vomiting blood and going into convulsions, he receives a blood transfusion (implied to be vampiric blood) in the hospital. He dies briefly on the hospital bed, but spontaneously revives and soon returns to South Korea. Seen by several church followers as a walking miracle, he reluctantly provides healing prayers, which the congregation hopes will cure their maladies. The mother of a childhood friend with cancer, Kang-woo, beseeches Sang-hyun to supplement his treatment, and subsequent visits to Kang-woo and his wife, Tae-ju, propel the story into a feverish love triangle. As his vampiric tendencies emerge, he also develops a carnal lust for Tae-ju, who seeks to escape the oppressive environment set by her ungrateful and sickly husband and his overbearing mother.
Sang-hyun’s transition from human to vampire subverts the common Christian redemption story. After dying and being brought back to life, his attempts to remain pious meet with increasing difficulty. He turns to stealing blood bags and siphoning blood out of the IVs of comatose patients to maintain his health, as going without blood causes the Emanuel Virus to return. His sudden attraction to Tae-ju results in a complete abandonment of his chastity vows. The emphatic desire and yearning for Sang-hyun’s curse is Park Chan Wook’s most interesting angle, rebounding the fear of the supernatural to the fear of human passion in a merciless world, an examination of how quickly morals systems fail in the throes of uncompromising situations: disease, entrapment, even immortality. The creeping, sickening dread that constitutes a major hallmark of art-house horror rarely sees the intensity present in Thirst, which combines provocative challenges of religious belief and stomach churning setpieces that stick with you for days. | Nic Champion
The Blu-ray for Thirst contains a commentary by journalist and author Bryan Reesman which provides an enlightening cultural background for some of