Through a cruel twist of fate, a priest (Song Kang-ho) becomes a creature of the night. His new found need for blood brings with it a burgeoning lust, and as his moral framework begins to crumble, he descends into a maelstrom of sexual depravity and bloodletting.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There are no halfway measures for Chan-wook Park. In the Korean auteur's latest movie, the blackly comic vampire tale Thirst, slurping, ravenous sucking sounds mark the letting of blood. There is nothing demure or effete about the hunger of the nocturnal creatures in his film: they bite, suck and gulp with gusto and rich claret hues mark their faces and hands. But because this is Park the horror is played with droll amusement, the violence is treated as bleak humour and the moral landscape is fundamentally irredeemable. It’s a bracing antidote for Twilight fever.
Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) is a Catholic priest whose duties can’t satisfy his faith. He administers last rites with cursory application and when he hears confessions he’s apt to suggest anti-depressants and a new attitude in place of traditional proscriptions; he’s a man of good intentions set to do nothing but wrong. In Park’s worldview – honed in films such as 2004’s Oldboy, which remains his striking international calling card – only those who know the darkness of their aims prosper. He’s a fatalist, but a vastly amusing one.
In the opening scenes Sang-hyeon volunteers for a Church program in Africa, where potential cures for a disfigurative, fatal virus (E.V.) are being trialed. With stoic acceptance he’s injected with the virus and begins to suffer (at one point he vomits blood through the flute he’s playing, in a typical example of Park’s eye for subverting a character’s minor pleasures), but a routine blood transfusion at the point of death keeps the priest alive after expiration and reverses the effects of the virus.
Sang-hyeon is declared a miracle and pilgrims flock to touch him, but he soon realises he’s no longer what he was – his senses are elevated and he craves blood. Soon he’s prowling the rooms of the hospital where he ministers, running transfusion lines from comatose patients into his mouth. Park treats the vampire myth as both a religious parable and a story of greed. Sang-hyeon hopes he is a saint – he lets his confessor figure put a hand inside his chest to feel his heart – but soon realises that he is deeply flawed, with a hunger that steadily grows.
His needs are legion. Visiting a local family he’s known since childhood, Sang-hyeon is drawn to Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), the meek wife of his imbecilic friend Kang-woo. Their courtship is fleeting and silent, with melodramatic passion butting up against coolly executed camera pans that invariably supply a visual punchline. Park paints the hosts as a collection of garish extremes – his lack of faith in the family structure is as strong as ever – but the true viper is Tae-ju, who is drawn to Sang-hyeon for the very qualities that he fears. He’s trying to avoid killing anyone for blood, she thinks cornering a fearful quarry makes for a more satisfying taste.
Their love is self-destructive, but only one of them realises it. Park never misses a beat in capturing their twisted co-dependancy, although Thirst lacks the precise pacing of his earlier works. But even if he lets the storyline meander, it’s a way of cruelly reminding his protagonists that they’re living on borrowed time. His Hitchcockian delight in manoeuvering his characters made for a strong end to the first full day of the Melbourne International Film Festival.