No other film this summer has made me so thrilled to be in a theater as Park Chan-wook’s Thirst. I say this as a confession–because a morally aware adult with responsible tastes cannot excuse, let alone indulge, the feral pleasures set loose in this movie. At least I have company in my guilt. One of the film’s two main protagonists feels as awful as I do about participating in the experience. The other has the time of her life, or undeath.
Recognized by scholarly viewers as a modern-dress Korean adaptation of Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin–whatever–Thirst is in fact many things: a tale of adultery and murder, a drama of Catholic spirituality, a thriller about medical science gone awry, a satire on provincial life (the hours clacked away in mah-jongg games, the years sighed out in claustrophobic shops and their upstairs apartments). But Thirst is always and above all a vampire movie, and as such it provides the best opportunity yet for the director of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance to express his lavish, grotesque and gleeful talent for bloodletting.
The star of this delirium is Song Kang-ho, who was so delightfully loose-jointed when playing the bleached-blond hero-despite-himself of Bong Joon-ho’s The Host but here moves initially with heavy care, as if each gesture cost him pain from an inner wound. As Sang-hyun, a young hospital chaplain, he suffers from the death all around him, from the apparent futility of his efforts to aid the dying and from a spirit of renunciation that is perhaps too complete. Aspiring to martyrdom–or is it suicide?–Sang-hyun volunteers to be a research patient in an African clinic, where doctors are seeking a cure for a deadly virus that (strangely enough) infects only missionaries. He awaits the agony in his cell, playing Bach’s “Ich habe genug” on the recorder; breaks out in pustules; hemorrhages profusely; and then dies on the operating table while receiving a blood transfusion–only to revive.
Still swaddled in bandages to hide the pustules, so he looks more like the Invisible Man than a vampire, Sang-hyun returns to Korea and resumes his hospital duties, now with the additional shame of being popularly thought to be a saint whose prayers have special efficacy. No one has ever survived the virus. How he survived it, and on what terms, does not become clear to him until the full moon, when he is suddenly overcome by a wash of red on the screen, the echoes of energetic copulation on the soundtrack and a flickering montage of wildlife imagery, intercut with pictures of a bandaged Jesus on the cross. By the time the fit passes, Sang-hyun understands that his body cries out for blood–a few swigs of which do wonders for that embarrassing skin problem.
One deeply carnal craving is bad enough for a priest with a perpetually heavy conscience. But a desire even worse than blood lust comes over Sang-hyun next, when chance reintroduces him to an old grammar school acquaintance–a scrawny, grinning, snot-nosed mama’s boy–and the man’s apparently abject wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). She is gorgeous, in a delicate-featured yet pouty way–and also glum, fragile, put-upon and somnambulistic, all of which goes right to Sang-hyun’s heart. He doesn’t realize that Tae-ju’s sleepwalking is actually a conscious ritual of escape, carried out regularly after she practices the best angle for shoving scissors into her husband’s snoring mouth. Sang-hyun knows only that Tae-ju, like him, is a lonely creature of the night. He sees nothing wrong with rescuing her (as he imagines it) on one of her nocturnal forays, lifting her off the pavement with his more-than-human strength, then lowering her bare feet into the protection of his worn-out shoes. Charity covers the first physical contact. The contact after that won’t be covered at all.