THE VAMPIRE FLICK Thirst is the most audibly visceral film I've ever encountered. Director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) has got a panache for blood slurpings, wet squishes of gore, and embarrassing moist noises—all of which make Thirst a riot of senses, if not the most cohesive film in the South Korean director's filmography.
Catholic priest Sang-hyun (The Host's Song Kang-ho) volunteers to be a guinea pig for experimental treatments for a mysterious leprosy-like disease. After a nasty bout of blood vomiting, he receives a (tainted) blood transfusion, which cures his strange affliction and gives him a new one—vampirism. The kindhearted Sang-hyun is driven to pursue his thirst for all things flesh—right to the door of his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) and to the bed of Kang-woo's shy and downtrodden wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). Sang-hyun's once pristine morality gets squelched in blood and lust, as the former priest feeds on coma victims, screws Tae-ju, and plots to murder Kang-woo.
Thirst is undeniably striking: It's a moody, complex film that's rife with sexual peculiarities and perverse humor, but it also feels like a confusing montage of two or three separate films. The depths of Sang-hyun's love for humanity and his subsequent guilt and despair at becoming a vampire are skimmed over. While he grapples with his hunger for blood and sex, flagellating himself in remorse, he feeds from the feeble and infirm, which gives way to plots of murder and even the raping of a young girl, to somehow ensure that he will go to hell for his insatiable thirst. Kang-ho's performance adds more nuance than I think the meandering script contains, but his character is still a quagmire of contradictions.
Tae-ju's character is even more of a jumble, as she goes from a young, petulant wife—a lackey for her adopted mother and Kang-woo—to Sang-hyun's voracious lover, who alleges that she's beaten by Kang-woo to incite his murder. Eventually Tae-ju progresses to demon vampiress, a killing machine with zero regard for humanity. She's the monster to Sang-hyun's vampire with a soul, which casts her in a flat and inscrutable light, like some textbook case to analyze in literary feminism class.
There's no doubt that Thirst is worth watching, despite its misses. It's an imperfect but clamorous event, filled with gory tableaus of red blood on stark white floors, mildewed rooms full of squishy waterbeds, and priest vestments flapping like a vampire's cape as Sang-hyun soars from building to building. Chan-wook's take on the vampire mythology is a handsome and disorderly work, indeed.