Over the past decade, while his unique storylines and images were establishing him as one of the world’s most daring filmmakers, director Park Chan-wook was planning Thirst. In his previous films (such as the Cannes Grand Prix winner Old Boy), Park has introduced characters to ethical dilemmas. By capturing their sins and/or their fight for redemption, the director has been able to vividly and excitingly explore the questions of human existence.
Therefore, this new work can be considered the apex of his film style; the irony of a priest, the ultimate symbol of humanism, being in a situation where he must drink others’ blood to survive as a vampire goes to the core relationship between sin and redemption that Park has long explored. The picture also furthers Park’s aesthetics of a bold editing style and vigorous camerawork, creating an intense and immersive viewing experience.
The filmmaker had had the project in mind for years. On the set of his debut feature, Joint Security Area (2000), Park asked star Song Kang-ho to play the lead. Song readily agreed, though the pair would go on to make two other movies together before Thirst finally began filming in August 2008.
Similarly, although Park engaged screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung to work with him on getting the concept into script form, the two proceeded to collaborated on a pair of movies that were written, filmed, and released prior to the Thirst script being finalized to the director’s specifications. Park also worked with his regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon at the screenwriting stage, having Chung research scenes as they were conceived and/or written.
While exploring the script’s vampire element, Park directed the “Cut” segment of the 2004 multi-part feature Three…Extremes; in Park’s portion of the omnibus horror film, a movie director is making – a vampire picture. Ironically, says Park, “I cannot and do not watch horror films; I scare easily.”
But Thirst is not necessarily a horror film per se. Park has over the years explored different genres in his films, and he realized that Thirst would be what he dubs “a scandalous vampire melodrama” yet also a modern-day story not tethered to the traditional Westernized vampire motifs; as he notes, “There are no bats, no stake through the heart, no fear of garlic and the cross – although there are religious issues embedded in the story. I also liked the idea of a vampire as a metaphor for any kind of exploiter.”
Once the script was camera-ready, the production achieved a unique distinction; the film became the first Korean feature to be made with U.S. studio investment and distribution, in that CJ Entertainment (South Korea’s most prestigious film financing, production, and distribution company) co-produced Thirst in partnership with Focus Features International and with Focus Features as the domestic distributor.
In the interim, Song Kang-ho had become a top Korean star, through not only his starring roles in Park’s movies but also his ones in director Bong Joon-ho’s movies, including the blockbuster horror hit The Host. Once state media dubs an actor “the Tom Hanks of South Korea,” he might be expected to have second thoughts about playing a priest who transitions into one Deadly Sin after another. Instead, Song remarks, “When I received the script, I was surprised by the meticulous structure and the originality of the story – and I was glad to see that it had finally come to life!
“I was thrilled to be a part of Thirst. It was difficult to play a man forced to the extremes that Sang-hyun goes through, but an actor needs to interpret characters with new perspectives and in a provocative way.”
The pivotal female lead role opposite Song went to new Korean star Kim Ok-vin; following Kang Hae-jung in Old Boy, Lee Young-ae in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Lim Soo-jung in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, Kim became the latest actress whom Park would guide to a performance that marked an unexpected break with a pre-existing screen image. In Kim’s case, her earlier movies have tended to fixate on her beauty. Park offers, “I think the audience is in for a big surprise; Kim is provocative, very mature, and sexy in Thirst. Her raw energy, combined with her classic yet modern image, makes her an actress with infinite potential.”
Kim marvels, “I’ve read no other script that stimulated my imagination as much as this one did. The characters came alive as I was reading it. The role of Tae-ju contained everything that an actor could wish to express, and I didn’t want the part to go to anyone else.
“Acting opposite Song was exciting. His eyes are amazing; they can express so much, and so many feelings.”
From pre-production through filming, Park paid special attention to working out the picture’s spatial concept, wanting to make it as singular as the tale itself. Working off of his theme of incarceration – both psychological and physical – the spatial concept can be categorized into “simple” and “compound.”
An example of the former is Sang-hyun’s space(s). The character’s orbit was designed to reflect the ethical and ascetic life of a priest, in the monastery and the hospital in Africa; a very austere décor with plain white walls, wooden flooring, and minimal furniture, designed to create a cold and dry atmosphere. Many of the scenes that take place after the priest’s transformation into a vampire were shot on indoor sets, as Park sought to intensify the drama within limited space. Narrow winding corridors of the hospital are metaphorical of the mental conflict and afflictions of a priest who abandons his creed.
On the other hand, Tae-ju’s dressmaker’s shop is a mixture of culturally clashing elements. Production designer Ryu Seong-hie and her team used wallpapers and fabrics, inspired by the phantasmal paintings of 19th-century French symbolist Odilon Redon, as an unbecoming backdrop. Jumbled up inside the traditional Japanese-style house are traditional Korean costumes, vodka, herbal medicines, figures of the Virgin Mary, and old Korean pop music. These incompatible objects together rid the space of any particular national trait, and the disharmonious quality of the space fuels Tae-ju’s frustration and desire for escape. Yet when Sang-hyun gives in to his carnal desire there, the space becomes more fantastical.
To the latter point, a sensuous mise-en-scène, one of the most distinctive traits of Park’s movies, is evident in Thirst. With equally strong presences of the male and female leads, the mise-en-scène encompasses both femininity and masculinity.
Similarly, Chung widened his cinematography angles in Thirst to allow greater freedom for the actors – a departure from his previous films for Park, wherein just about every camera move had been worked out in advance. Both director and cinematographer worked closely with their regular collaborator Park Hyun-won, whom they see as having a perfect understanding of Park’s intentions with regards to lighting, and who this time out created a unique color palette by trying different techniques such as mixing green and tungsten. Emphasis was placed on the contrast between the story’s light-filled beginning and the deep darkness following Sang-hyun’s transformation.
The evolving emotions of the characters are manifested through Cho Sang-kyung’s costumes and Song Jong-hee’s make-up and hair design. In the beginning, Sang-hyun wears achromatic-colored clothes made with soft fabric to portray a plain and honest priest. His non-clerical clothing consists of plain china-collared shirts or turtleneck jumpers and khaki trousers, allowing him to blend in with the public. After his transformation takes place, rougher clothes and messy hair replace his meticulous preppy look.
Tae-ju’s emotional sea change is manifested by a shift in color from nude tones to blue. As an oppressed woman living in the shadow of her controlling mother-in-law (played by Kim Hae-sook) and weakling husband (another frequent star of Park’s films, Shin Ha-kyun), Tae-ju has a pale complexion and frizzy uncombed hair. After meeting Sang-hyun, she regains her vitality; her face glows and her hair takes on a gloss. The blue dresses she wears flatter the beautiful woman she has become.
Turning from what is seen to what is heard, Park hand-picked very different musical selections for the soundtrack. The overall inspiration for Cho Young-uk’s woodwind-based original score, Bach’s “Cantata BWV 82” is what Sang-hyun plays on the recorder. The lyrics of the aria, also known as “Ich habe genug,” concern the anticipation of eternity; “Because Christ has redeemed us, we can embrace death as an eternal peace.” The aria expresses Sang-hyun’s heart, while also voicing Western culture’s advocating of rationalism.
In contrast, the aforementioned vintage Korean pop music is by Lee Nan-young and Nam In-soo. These old-school songs from the 1940s reflect the smothering reality that Tae-ju is in; they are her mother-in-law’s favorite songs and so for Tae-ju they reinforce her life as an outright chore. The over-exaggerated nostalgia in the song lyrics represents sentiments particular to Koreans that reaffirm tradition and Eastern culture. Lee Nan-young’s songs additionally abstractly express the complex emotions welling up in the illicit lovers’ hearts – regret, longing, nostalgia, and nihilism.