Just as the action in Park Chan-wook’s Thirst is getting under way, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin) challenges Sang-hyun, the young Catholic priest she’s just started fucking, to prove that he’s really a vampire. Sweeping her up in his arms, he leaps from the rooftop of the high building where they’ve met up; though they float down safely, she’s soaring, dizzy at the prospect of hanging with a vampire and even becoming one herself. From this point on, it’s Kim Ok-vin’s movie. Guilt-ridden, Sang-hyun is sure they are both going to hell; but since she’s not a believer, she’s determined to bleed vampiredom for all its worth. Right up to the inevitable, and nicely conceived, ending, her fun makes a mockery of mor(t)ality.
The intro shows Sang-hyun (played by Song Kang-ho, star of the blockbuster The Host) giving himself to Jesus by volunteering to be injected with a trial vaccine for a disease that causes the skin to erupt in boils followed by internal bleeding and a grotesque death. The disease kills him, but unlike the other guinea pigs, he comes back to life. The rub, though, is that one of the transfusions he had has turned him into a vampire, and only fresh blood can stop the return of the boils. Some of it he gets by supping at the transfusion tube of a comatose patient in the clinic where he ministers, but most comes from the family of a childhood friend he’s called in to save: Tae-ju, her idiot husband, his mother, and various friends who come by to play mahjong, including a Filipina mail-order bride.
Between the beginning and end of the romance between Tae-ju and Sang-hyun, there’s not so much a plot as a series of incidents in which the family members are bled dry. These are anchored in recurring symmetrically centered, stationary compositions, but in between, all hell breaks loose in the form of surreal subjective interludes, bombastic imagistic montages, and of course the gory set pieces. My favorite occurs just after Sang-hyun has broken Tae-ju’s neck: to bring her back to life, he slashes his own wrists and forces his blood into her mouth while at the same time sucking it back out through one of her wrists. In Park’s earlier “vengeance trilogy,” skewed but urgent psychological motivation made comparable scenes horrific and harrowing, but here they topple over into camp. Whether the blood is imbibed from carotid arteries suddenly ruptured by a stab from a pair of kitchen shears or disgorged in a projectile vomit across a virginal white room, the excess is as much comic as chilling, so Churriguer-esque is the guignol. As in the work of Kenneth Anger, whose identification of God and the Devil and comic-book flippancy the film recalls, multiple superimposed ironies feed gravitas into comedy and back again.
Though lacking a dramatic structure, the film is tightly knitted with echoing motifs, and periodically it spews up tensile narrative ironies: for example, Sang-hyun and Tae-ju drown her idiot husband in a lake, but he returns grinning through their water bed to haunt their lovemaking. Kim Ok-vin is the film’s saving grace; as one of the soon-to-be slaughtered family friends remarks, her eyes express everything between yes and no, and she is demonically able to shift through a whole lexicon of contradictory emotions in one blink.
Doubtless there’s a theme or even a moral here: something to do with guilt and redemption, or perhaps “When you’re dead, you’re dead—even if you were already undead.” But whatever it is, it’s not much more than a vehicle for the gore, and these days vampires don’t have much fright value left. The night I saw Park’s contribution to the blood bank, the cover of the new TV Guide announced the next season of True Blood with a line that could have been used for Thirst: “Hot Vampires in Love.”