Did you hear the one about the Korean priest who becomes a vampire? All he wants is to do good for humanity, so he volunteers for an experimental vaccine to treat a deadly blood disease. Next thing you know, he's one of the undead, revered by the populace for the apparent miracle of his healing — and wrestling with bloody appetites inflamed by proximity to a beautiful, unhappy young woman who's the wife of his childhood friend. This devout man's idea of a good drink is one of the transfusion bags hanging in the hospital where he prays for the souls of the wretched. Off duty, he drains their precious bodily fluids.
There's more, much more in Thirst, a gaudy, daring, operatic, and bloody funny provocation of a melodrama from Park Chan-wook. The stylistically elegant bad boy of Korean cinema (auteur of the revenge trio Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Lady Vengeance) makes clever leaps between longings of the spirit and desires of the flesh, as well as between the traditions and strictures of old Korean culture and the lures and confusions of the new. As the thirsty priest, Song Kang-ho, a regular Park repertory player and Korea's leading movie star, looks great whether he's covered with pustules or naked and clear-skinned, lusting for flesh. And in the role of a miserable wife dominated by her bossy mother-in-law, former beauty-pageant winner Kim Ok-vin bursts into demented, aroused radiance once bitten by the thirsty priest. As ever, the filmmaking in Thirst is gorgeous, every shot a keeper, even as blood flows in rivers and hell beckons.
If you're going to do a love story, make it a mad love story. Get down into the essentials: ecstasy, pain and all the bodily fluids, especially blood. Park Chan-wook, best known to DVD connoisseurs for his Vengeance trilogy, is a past master of emotional violence. He's the soul of South Korea's vigorous, not to say kinky, psychological action movies. And Thirst — with its irresistible one-line sales pitch: a priest becomes a vampire — is his richest, craziest, most mature work yet.
Father Sang-hyun (Korean superstar Song Kang-ho) is a Catholic priest who's both caring and modern. He intones the last rites over terminally ill patients at the local hospital, and in confession he gives one troubled nurse the penance of 20 Hail Marys, a walk in the sun and a recommendation to take antidepressants. He is also a serious flagellant, whipping his thighs in mortification to suppress sexual urges. (Park's Oldboy also boasted more than its share of self-mutilation.) He has a Christ-like desire to save the world through suffering, and that vocation leads him into a medical experiment with dire effects: everyone else who's undergone it has died. (See pictures of the Cannes 2009 Red Carpet.)
The experiment — makes no sense, doesn't matter, this is a horror movie — is one he somehow survives, making him a figure of veneration to a small cult believing he can cure all ailments. That's the hope of Father Hyun's feeble school chum Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), who lives with his termagant mom (Kim Hae-sook) and his strangely silent, sullen young wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). What the family doesn't know is that the good father has picked up a little side effect of the experiment: vampirism. The condition's benefits — he can bend lampposts, scale high walls — don't always outweighs its liabilities. The food supply he needs is hard to find in the local market. So, as you walk unawares into a hospital room, you might find a man in a collar and cassock supine on the floor, sucking the blood from a patient's IV bottle.
Turns out that Tae-ju is just the woman for this virgin vampire. In one long scene of sexual tension, she kisses Hyun and nearly seduces him; in another, he acknowledges both her attractiveness and his rapacious new nature and they consummate their relationship, one whose ecstatic excess will define the rest of the film. Their love is both sacred and insane: sacra-Mental. And the movie — whose French title translates as the liturgically evocative "This Is My Blood" — goes mad with them. It's liberating to watch a film that melds with the obsessions of its characters, that strips the moorings from genre expectations and leaves viewers asking whether the film has lost its mind or they have. Our advice to those who see Thirst in its U.S. release later this year: when Thirst goes nuts, go with it. (See the top 10 Cannes Film Festival movies of all time.)
Song Kang-ho has starred in many of the films that mark the Korean renaissance: Shiri, The Foul King, Memories of Murder, The Host, Secret Sunshine and Park's Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. The actor's trademark stolidity, which lends itself equally well to deadpan comedy and high-voltage macho roles, is a suitable vessel for Father Hyun's stoic battle against the impulses that have invaded his system. But it's the lovely Kim, just 22, who is the revelation here. She can play — no, she can be — a creature of mute docility, then searching ardor, then explosive eroticism, then murderous intent. She is Lady Chatterley and Lady Macbeth in one gorgeous, smoldering package.
Blending plot elements of Double Indemnity and Natural Born Killers with the ripe sensuality of Francis Coppola's take on Dracula, the film has made festival critics sit up in startled pleasure, as if they'd just received the most luscious neck-bite. It's almost guaranteed to get an important citation on closing night. Park's Oldboy won the Grand Jury Prize, the second-place award here at Cannes, in 2004. On its merits, Thirst should do better.
Finally, there's a vampire movie worthy of the title The Hunger—even if it arrives under the more potable name Thirst. Carnal appetite, not a parched palate, is the accelerant that fuels this perverse, prankish, and merrily anti-clerical exercise in bloodletting from Park Chan-wook, the South Korean director whose films function like the moral-retribution mechanisms in the Saw movies—traps with no way out but a permanently scarring exit.
Vampirism would seem an unusually . . . genteel diversion for Park, best known for the "Vengeance Trilogy," which reached its apex with the Jacobean cruelties of 2003's devious Oldboy. Starting with 2002's Byzantine kidnapping-gone-awry saga Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the former film critic and one-time philosophy student has made his subject (and method) the self-destroying machinery of violence. Once somebody throws a switch, the unstoppable gears of his plots mangle the guiltless and the guilty alike.
But the vampire genre proves to be a squishy wet dream for a filmmaker who regularly works in a palette of gougings, impalings, and blunt-force traumas, with the odd electrocution or tongue-snipping as karmic relief. In Thirst, which shared this year's Jury Prize at Cannes, Park zeroes in on the moral and sexual squeamishness underlying the cult of Twilight—wannabe Lestats whose idea of eternal night is a Hot Topic midnight sale.
Thirst's hero, the priest, Sang-hyeon (played by South Korean superstar Song Kang-ho, who can do active and passive simultaneously), despairs of his powerlessness in a ravaged world. Seeking a chance to make a difference, the doubt-plagued do-gooder offers himself to a vaccine trial against a deadly African virus. As warned, his skin ruptures and pustulates, and God evidently answers his prayer to "pull out my nails, so that I may grasp nothing"—leaving the bandaged, mummified priest to wither and die.
This somber, straight-faced opening is mostly a feint. Park tips his hand only in a gruesome sight gag—the leprous priest playing his recorder, from which pours not music but blood. Then, a miracle: Sang-hyeon rebounds from death, the zits recede, and a cult of worshippers begin brandishing a gauze-wrapped crucifix and begging for his healing powers. A relapse later, the priest wakes with a sickening realization: The vim and vigor that his followers take for divine light has more to do with a newfound aversion to sunlight—and pesky new cravings for blood and other unnamable desires.
It's at this point that Park notches up the melodrama from clinical cool to hothouse fever, insinuating his infected man of God into the seething household of idiot-manchild buddy Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), his martinet mom, Lady Ra (Kim Hae-sook), and Kang-woo's dissatisfied wife, Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin, in a star-making show of erotic fireworks). Now ravenous for flesh as well as blood, with a hard-on he can't flagellate away, the priest locks eyes with Tae-joo. As it turns out, she's less than repulsed by his secret: "Vampires are cuter than I thought."
A vampire priest? The gift of eternal life as an STD? Holy Luis Buñuel! From here on, as the lovers scheme about what to do with Tae-joo's inconvenient spouse, the plotting borrows mightily from Émile Zola's proto-noir Thérèse Raquin—albeit with Zola's naturalism embellished by superhuman powers, CGI rooftop leaps, and color-coordinated bloodshed. But it plays as malicious mischief, diverting but curiously weightless. In Oldboy, the characters' tragic dimensions gave Park's trip-wired torments a kind of Shakespearean horror, the blow of wounds struck to the soul. Thirst settles for a macabre jollity as the unlikable characters affix nastily ironic fates to each other. Park's postman doesn't ring twice—he just piles a lot of bloody packages on the doorstep.
But Park's voluptuous style fits a genre that is all appetite—or should be. With Twilight, the vampire movie for vegetarians, as only the most obvious example, mainstream movies on the subject now seem freaked out by the messiness of intercourse: Throat-sucking is OK, but God forbid any other parts see action. The violence in Thirst is less shocking than the slurpy physicality of the sex scenes, oral ravishings that extend to toes and armpits. As the priest's senses unfurl, the whole world seems made of meat—the obscene adipose rippling of Kang-woo's waterbed is a particularly grotesque manifestation of erotic hunger.
Less startling, but equally welcome, is Park's refusal to duck the moral implications typically glossed over by vampire groupies. The fatalism inherent in vampire movies—that once bitten, you have no choice but to feed—suits Park's fascination with protagonists who have basically had free will stolen from them. The most intriguing aspect of Thirst is the steady erosion of Sang-hyeon's ethics, slackened from "do not" to "do not kill" to "do not kill the undeserving" by the lure of those O+ cocktails.
Are you hungering for that rare vampire movie with serious intellectual heft, ravishing undead, biting passion and a healthy splash of irony as well as iron in all that spilled red blood?
Wait no longer, Korean auteur Park Chan-wook's "Thirst" should satisfy.
Though the subject is vampires, this is not a horror film, at least not in any of the traditional ways we think of horror with its thrills and chills, shrieks and shocks. Instead, Park has created a rumination on morality and mortality that is not at all deadly, but funny and profound and at times intensely erotic.
"Thirst," the Jury Prize winner at the Cannes International Film Festival this year stars Song Kang-ho as a brooding young priest whose efforts at self-sacrifice lead him into a high-risk experimental medical program. Things do not go well, and a tainted blood transfusion turns out to be lifesaving in ways he never imagined.
The priest becomes the predator, but in what has become a modern-day trend (see "Twilight" and "True Blood"), the undead cleric has adopted medicine's governing principle -- first do no harm. Which is all well and good except there is the matter of that unquenchable thirst that makes even the best intentions a struggle.
Park, who co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Chung Seo-kyung, has surrounded Song with trials and temptations. The most deadly turns out to be carnal desire in the winsome shape of Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), a devil in a blue kimono if there ever was one.
Soon there is an intriguing web of deception being spun around and by our tortured priest as he moves between siphoning blood from patients at a nearby hospital, assisting suicides and a weekly mah-jongg game.
Mah-jongg, and soon other far more deadly games, is played at the house where Tae-ju lives. Her situation there is complicated -- an abandoned child the family took in, raised like a daughter by the domineering matriarch, but now married to the idiot son, who was a childhood friend of the priest.
Incest? Technically no. Regardless, this is not the question that interests Park as it did in his seminal 2003 treatise on the subject, "Old Boy."
Nevertheless, sexual relations and relationships are usually somewhere at the dark heart of Park's work. Mix that predilection with vampire mythology, long cloaked in sexual complexity (see Anne Rice's "Interview With a Vampire" et al.), and it was clear that he would have much to play with.
And Park has taken full advantage of the possibilities. Though the filmmaker has made a career of examining human frailty within brutal landscapes where violence and revenge battle it out with god and philosophy for the soul, "Thirst" may be his most fully realized film yet. Certainly its visual style is stunning, the color pallet shifting from muted browns to stark whites, the set design from cluttered to spare, as the vampire instincts take hold.
Nothing about "Thirst" is tentative. Where many filmmakers opt for their undead to swoop in for a quick bite and drain, Park has chosen to linger on the process, a decision that is more unsettling than frightening as you watch life slipping away in the face of uncontrollable need.
He has also given us a love triangle between the priest, the pretty one and the son that is both ordinary and exceptional in the ways it tempts and tests our players. For starters, "Thirst" has some of the most exhaustive vampire sex to be found, at least in the art house versus the back rooms of video stores or the inky corridors of the Internet.
Where forbidden desire grows, deceit is sure to follow, and it quickly does. This is where Park slips into the surreal in ways that don't quite work for the story, which otherwise grounds its vampires in the rhythms of a relatively ordinary existence, the feasting rituals notwithstanding.
Song, one of Korea's top actors, is mesmerizing as the meditative priest, and Kim proves a tantalizingly fiery and unexpected counterbalance. In one particularly trenchant moment, the two lovers sit on a beach, watching the waves roll in. It's just before sunrise. Breakfast anyone?
Finally, a vampire movie for grown-ups, and, like last year’s “Let the Right One In,” it’s from outside the U.S. Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (“Old Boy”) ups the ante by making his antihero a Catholic priest (Song Kang-ho) who turns bloodsucker after a transfusion, and is forever tortured by the plasma-and-carnal needs of his situation. As he initiates a former friend’s wife (Kim Ok-vin) into the world of the undead, bodies fly, are feasted upon and intertwine in a way that might scare the bejesus out of the “Twilight” crowd. Nasty fun, but don’t watch it on a full stomach.
I have been dying to see Park Chan Wook's latest film, THIRST. Mainly because I had no idea what a Vampire story from his amazing vantage point would look like. Would there be new Vampire rules? Would it be a recognizable vampire story? Or would it be something entirely new?
Coming from South Korea - I was anticipating the latter. THIRST did not disappoint.
It is a vampire story. But it is so much more than that. This is primarily a psycho-sexual tale of mutual addiction. In many ways it resembles a great film that I've seen recently called IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES by Nagisa Oshima back in 1976. In Oshima's film you have two people that become so entwined, so sexually high on one another and to topping each high with something crazier, wilder, more irresponsible. That spirals wildly out of control.
Now Park's THIRST is no where near as graphic, sexually speaking, as IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, but it is very much a kindred spirit.
Kang-Ho Song plays a virginal priest named Sang-Hyeon. He's dedicated his life to the Priesthood - and is so selfless, that he volunteers to be infected with a truly awful virus that ravages the body into a messy death - all to try a cure that thus far, had not worked. Through the process, through the ravaging of his body he intends to grow closer to his savior, Jesus Christ, his dream to hear God. But in the end, his savior was not God, but an anonymous Vampire blood donor that infected him, turned him and cured him.
He becomes legendary as the "Bandaged Saint". People want his blessings, pray for his blessings. Through a rather innocent occurrence at the hospital he is stationed at, he meets the mother of a childhood friend, whose wife was another childhood friend.
Had Sang-hyeon never met Tae-Joo. He probably would have just remained a sad sack vampire, sucking upon the comatose and his blind father. But no. He found Tae-Joo and she him. Two miserable spirits that find solace, a measured degree of happiness with one another. But this is a mistake. This is wrong.
It begins sexually. An abused woman forced into a relationship with her adopted brother/husband. Treated like Harry Potter in his muggle home. The kindness of this Priest and his curiosity with her, her body, her sensuality. It calls to him. It screams at him to betray his vows of celibacy, but his faith has begun to falter in the wake of his undead nature. So their sexual relationship begins. Passion is found where it was missing in both. In each other they find someone that can never have enough. Add to this - Vampirism... and you've got a formula for something truly perverse. Murder is done. It gets worse, the problems grow, the psychological toll is taken and it grows and grows.
Where it is headed is something that only you should discover as the film progresses, but let me tell you... the film is intensely erotic, horrifying and oddly romantic.
The visual effects of the film are kind of amazing. It isn't just that they can fly, but it is the way the camera moves with them, the way we follow the characters - it feels... somehow... personal. Like we're the bird on their shoulder for the ride. It is intoxicating, because I'm not entirely sure how it was done, but I love watching it.
The sex is sexy. The violence is brutal and disgusting. And the magic of vampirism is magic. This is a truly great Vampire story, adult and intense. If you want something with teeth, this will quench your THIRST!
I'm sorry. That line just made me laugh so hard, but I really do mean it. This is one of the absolute best films I've seen this year.
Hey, I know -- you can't wait for that new vampire love story, right? The one with the handsome, tormented stranger who sees the inner beauty of that mousy Cinderella chick. He loves her intensely, so much so that even though he must drink human blood to live, he constantly fights against the impulse to pull her into his undead world of darkness and suffering. Well, here it is.
OK, this one is in Korean, which maybe you weren't expecting. And its vampire hero is a Roman Catholic priest, which admittedly might not go down big with the family-values crowd. It comes with a heavy dose of religious guilt, some bizarre sexual slapstick involving a leering, drowned ghost, unpredictable explosions of violence and a black-comic satire of middle-class family life. It's called "Thirst," and it's partly based on Emile Zola's 19th-century novel "Thérèse Raquin," of all things. Its cinematic daring, narrative wildness and, yes, full-throated romance make it the best vampire love story of the year. (If you're over the age of 14, that is.)
Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes earlier this year, "Thirst" is the newest (and in some sense oldest) film from Korean director Park Chan-wook, who almost single-handedly seems to embody this decade's prodigious East Asian cinematic renaissance. Best known for the "Vengeance" trilogy, a series of interconnected, ultraviolent, moral fables that included the international cult hit "Oldboy" -- which a few media hysterics briefly, and irresponsibly, linked to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre -- Park has already become a singular figure in film history. It's difficult to think of another director who's been so widely embraced by the global art-cinema scene and by horror-thriller genre buffs. Hitchcock? Kurosawa? Roman Polanski? Quentin Tarantino? Maybe if you Cuisinart those guys together and ferment the mixture in the cultural hothouse of contemporary South Korea, you get Park Chan-wook.
Even in jest, such a formula seems like diminishing an artist, and Park is very much his own creation. Both in person and in his films, Park comes off as completely committed and sincere. He hasn't made a movie about a selfless priest who dies of a horrible skin disorder after a failed medical experiment, only to be reanimated as a vampire who seems to have supernatural healing powers, and who then embarks on a doomed love affair with a bitter and lonely middle-class wife -- all while trying to square his bloody and sinful existence with his abiding faith in God -- out of some jaded, meta-B-movie impulse. If "Thirst" can be described as a wild, nearly crackpot assemblage of different kinds of stories, they're all addressing a set of basic human questions about love, sex, violence, guilt and redemption that have preoccupied Park throughout his career.
I think "Thirst" is a brilliant and gruesome work of cinematic invention as well as a passionate and painful human love story. Park is so often celebrated as a stylist -- some of the credit should go to his cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon -- that people don't notice how wonderfully he works with actors. The central couple in "Thirst," leading Korean star Song Kang-ho (who plays the priest) and one-time beauty queen Kim Ok-vin, are marvelously matched as they veer from living to undead, from love to hate and back again. I'd qualify that glowing endorsement by saying that Park's risk-taking doesn't always pay off. "Thirst" goes on too long, drags in places, and can't always manage its unstable balance of horror, romance and comedy. When the result is a daring crazy-quilt of a movie that's not quite like anything you've ever seen before, I'll take it.
I met Park Chan-wook at his midtown Manhattan hotel during his recent American visit. Sober and soft-spoken, dressed in a turtleneck and suit jacket, the 45-year-old director could pass for your average visiting Asian businessman. Although he appeared to understand my questions in English, he responded through an interpreter. This might sound implausible if you haven't seen his films, but Park is a major classical music buff. He told me his principal regret about his brief New York stopover was that he had no time to catch a concert at Carnegie Hall. "I walked by there yesterday, and there were so many posters on the walls for artists I admire," he said. (Indeed, a Bach cantata forms the basis for the score in "Thirst.")